Sunday 3 December 2017

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.   Mark 13:33-34

Let’s start by taking a look at the various Advent symbols. First, the name of the season itself, Advent. This comes to us directly from Latin, “adventus” or arrival, itself coming from “ad” or to, and “venire” the verb to come.  There are four Advent Sundays prior to Christmas, which is the arrival of Jesus the Lord. Then there are the four candles as you see above on the Advent Wreath. This was born in the Lutheran Church and has made its way to almost every other Christian community. One candle, as you can see, for each Sunday. The rose-colored candle stands for the third Sunday of Advent, named Gaudete Sunday (“Rejoice” Sunday). On that Sunday, vestments at Mass may be rose-colored, one of only two Sundays in the church year where that happens (the other is Laetare Sunday in Lent). You see one candle is lit above, representing the first Sunday of Advent. Each Sunday then will have the appropriate number of candles lit as Christmas approaches, the rose-colored being lit on Gaudete Sunday. This usually happens at the beginning of Mass, and sometimes the wreath is blessed with holy water. During Mass the Gloria is omitted, as it is in Lent. The normal liturgical vestment color for the season is violet, the same as in Lent. This gives rise to confusion between Lent and Advent, and many think they are the same type of season, namely one of repentance. Not so: Advent is a season of preparation, which itself has two dimensions. One if the preparation for the coming of the Lord at Christmas, and the other is the coming of the Lord at the Last Judgement, which we can see from today’s gospel. Several Protestant churches have dealt with this confusion between Advent and Lent by turning to a dark blue as the Advent vestment color, which makes a great deal of sense. This Sunday is also the first Sunday of the church’s year which today initiates the reading from the second cycle of Scripture readings, cycle B. Finally, the most well-known Advent hymn is Veni Veni Emmanuel, O come O come Emmanuel, originally Latin but now with a famous English translation thanks to the 19th century Anglican priest John Mason Neale. An even better Advent song is The Angel Gabriel from Heaven Came, to an old Basque tune called Birjina Gaztettobat Zegoen (or Gabriel’s Message). But we hardly ever hear it.

Now the previous few Sundays have focussed on getting ready for the End Time when we will all be judged as to whether we are sheep or goats (see last Sunday’s gospel). Today the message is hammered home once more, again repeating that we don’t know when that will be. But we do know that we have to be ready for it, and that we still have the time to prepare for its advent! So let’s take a look at the other readings for today. The passage from the prophet Isaiah could well have been written last week:

…we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you… 
Isaiah 64:6b-7.

All of us must know about declining church attendance, the expression “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual”, the frequency of media negative language when dealing with Christian belief. Indeed, it seems to hark back to the earliest days of the church, when the ancient Romans looked on the tiny Christian church as ridiculous and worthy of contempt, at the same time accusing it of treason, cannibalism, incest and even atheism! Today, Christians are seen by many as deluded, pathetic and superstitious. But at least today we are not literally thrown to the lions; only symbolically. Which makes it all the more impressive when you see young families arriving on Sunday morning to give thanks to God. Something still brings people to God today, but the strength of this attraction seems to be under threat. So St. Paul, writing to the Christians in Corinth in the second reading today, offers hope:

[Jesus] will keep you firm to the end,
irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
God is faithful,
and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.     1 Corinthians 1:8-9.

Christians should never be downhearted. The state of the church when Paul wrote that was infinitely weaker than it is today. They had every reason to feel threatened and afraid for what they believed compared to us today. Weirdly, in a way, that makes it worse for us. They believed despite every barrier and threat; we have none of that. We can drift away for silly reasons; because we don’t want to get up on Sunday morning; or because a bad event in our lives took place that “God allowed to happen” or a million other reasons. Jesus on the cross must have had such thoughts, don’t you think? Yet he still believed, and so should we, because where else can we go for comfort and strength? Once upon a time, when I was a Jesuit novice going through the Long Retreat (30 days in silence conversing only with God and the retreat director) I had an experience of no God. Suddenly my whole experience of life, surroundings, experience was cold. The first thought that occurred to me was “Why am I in this place?” God had moved clean away; nothing was left. Clearly that did not last but I have never forgotten that literally chilling experience. My question is, how could anyone live in such a cold world? It was horrible.

And another experience, years later. I used to be terrified of flying. My family being in London and me here in the USA meant that I had to fly. Once, and this was on a short flight, my arms went numb with terror; another time my face turned a sort of greenish color. It was extremely unpleasant. Then a question came to me. Why am I so scared of dying and going to God? I took another retreat (one week this time) on the theme of death, to come face to face with this terror. I had a meditation of the moment of death and was granted a sort of vision about it. Suddenly all was inky, totally, black. There was nothing, save my self-conscious awareness. I looked around, and I could make out the outline of a door, obviously lit from inside. Well what would anyone do? I went up to the door and slowly opened it. It was a very brightly lit room, plainly carpeted but completely empty except for another closed door opposite the one I was going through. I went in and looked around this empty space, except it wasn’t empty. There was the Lord, bejeaned, oh, and bearded, just like most of his pictures, sitting on the floor, his back against the wall. He looked up at me, smiled, greeted me, stood up, put his arm across my shoulders, and said “Welcome; let’s go and meet Dad.” The second door opened, we made our way towards it, and the vision faded. Since that moment all fear of flying, and hopefully death itself, vanished, and it has remained so ever since. Lauda Domini!

So today is a call to be ready for that day, for without such readiness there will be no brightly lit door outline, just eternal blackness with self-conscious awareness of ….nothing else. None of us can escape this moment, whenever it will be. So just as when waiting for a train, we should have a ticket which we have worked for to pay, so we should be well prepared for the advent of that final moment. If we have our valid, properly worked and paid for ticket, we should not fear anything.