Sunday, 27 November 2016

Advent Week 1 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44

We have tested and tasted too much, lover – 
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.

These are the opening lines of a poem called Advent, written by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) and learned by every Irish schoolboy and girl of my generation. The adult who is experienced, compromised and perhaps a bit cynical envies the wonder and amazement that characterise the child’s soul. So the poet speaks of ‘the newness that was in every stale thing when we looked at it as children’. He hopes that ‘the dry black bread and the sugarless tea of penance will charm back the luxury of a child’s soul’. 

As children we have a strong and natural sense of wonder. Part of the price of growing up seems to be the loss of the freshness and clarity that goes with it. The world becomes ordinary. It becomes less magical and more serious. It becomes indifferent and perhaps even hostile. Something is lost, a sharpness, an edge, a light, in which even the most ordinary things are magical and the most ordinary events mysterious. We find it briefly again, perhaps, by going to see Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings but the point is whether it can be found again in our real lives and not just in the flickering images.

What about a bridge, a boat, a river bank, a field, a red bus (now there’s a wonder!), early morning sun on a distant sea, unused tram tracks, tar bubbling on a summer’s day, the buzz of insects, the Christmas lights – and many other ordinary things and what they meant to the child you once were.

Grown-ups still ‘get’ something of wonder at second hand, through their children. The excitement and amazement of children, especially at Christmas time, is contagious. Through their eyes we glimpse again what we once knew – the excited waiting of the Advent season, the longing, almost beyond bearing, for a great day ahead.

The season of Advent invites us to return and rediscover something we have lost. This is what the word ‘repent’ means – turn back, turn around, return. We are to do this not just to lament what has been lost but to re-discover a sense of excitement, to be alert and keen and awake and attentive once more. We are to be open to the wonders that the Lord will yet reveal in our lives (tired and cynical as we may be at times), the wonders he will yet reveal in our world (unjust, violent and corrupt as it often now is).

We have tested and tasted too much. The cares and worries and sad events of life overpower us. Distractions keep us from settling deeply into our own hearts. It may be that the hardening and darkening that follow sin have overtaken us. Whatever the state of our adult heart, Advent holds out the promise of again living in a wonder-full way.

This note of joyful expectation and keen wonder is sounded throughout the liturgy of the Advent season. Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, rejoicing as we approach his house. Swords will be turned into ploughshares, spears into sickles. There will be no more training for war. Wake up because it will soon be daylight and the time of dreary darkness will be over. Stay awake! Stand ready! Be alert and keen and expectant because the coming of the Son of Man will be sudden and full of significance.

Often people say that Christmas is for children. It is more true to say that Christmas is for adults who have not forgotten what it means to be a child. It is for those who have suffered ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ and have not allowed it to destroy their wonder or joy or hope. Christmas is a time to rekindle our faith that our God will return, paving a way through the valleys and mountains of our lives, making possible what seemed impossible. He is, after all, the God who raises the dead.

The child in us has no difficulty believing such wonders and all we need do is trust that that child is seeing something true. We are to be the adult children of our Heavenly Father, charming back the luxury of the child’s soul through prayer and reconciliation, penance and right living. It is not really a luxury, this child’s soul in us. It is essential for our maturity since unless we become as little children, we shall not be ready to enter the kingdom of heaven when He comes.

This reflection was first published in the parish newsletter of St Dominic's, London

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