First Week of Advent 2021

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand. Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come down on every living person on the face of the earth. Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.’

Apart from anything else, the gospels are great art, in fact supreme spiritual art. Like all art, they reflect what human beings  like us feel and they illuminate those feelings with transformative insights. We sense they know us before we read them. They bring into the field of consciousness what normally remains on the non-verbal, un-imagined borderlands. Listened to wisely they make the invisible visible. But they achieve this through interaction with our interpretation. They are not magic and do not treat us like infants. If we merely take the words and images literally, we miss the opportunity to look behind the screen and, like Daniel, to ‘gaze into the visions of the night’. Let’s use the next four weeks to encounter these forces of wisdom we call the gospels in a new and more intimate way.

As we begin Advent, a time set aside by ancient liturgical wisdom to prepare us for a true celebration of Christmas, we are first presented with a series of apocalyptic prophecies. Today we have got used to what seems doom and gloom messages in relation to climate change predictions, financial corruption, wars and the tragedies suffered by refugee families callously used as objects of politicians or traffickers. But the words of Jesus in the gospel for the first Sunday of Advent, the description of a Day of Reckoning is still chilling. Many Christians misread them as predictions (which are not the same as prophecies) and take them literally. They do so despite the fact that Jesus, speaking as the culmination of the lineage of biblical prophets, refers to things that happen in every age. Check today’s news.

Perhaps the tendency to take them literally reveals a fear of what they actually do mean. They illustrate each human being’s sense of mortality as well as the terror that arises from a world of constant change over which we have little control. Easier to convince yourself that the world will go up in flames tomorrow than to live peacefully with the fact that any of us could pass away before today ends.

Yet these prophecies are not sensationalist and do not end with the instilling of fear. Instead there is the injunction to be awake, alert, to reject the debauchery of harmful distraction by discovering the hidden but ever-present reality of continuous prayer. Look inwards, not up at the sky. Be present to the present that is present rather than imagining tomorrow. 

The ‘Way’ of the gospel is not to live in fear and trembling. It is to recognise when we are manipulated by fear, from our unconscious or from the media, and to choose the way of ‘liberation’ instead. The true End is this liberation from fear of the end. 

Let me suggest for each o week of Advent a skill to learn. This week it could be to guard your heart and mind from fear and its progeny, to expose it and dance freely over it.

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