We are about to enter the last month of the calendar year and the ninth month of the financial year, which began in April. It’s also the fourth month of the academic year, which began in September. And now, today, it’s the beginning of a new Church Liturgical Year and the beginning of the season of Advent.
So our Church’s Calendar is way out of step with those other cycles of the year.
In the Church we tell time in a different way from the calculations of the world around us. Our Liturgical Calendar places us “out of sync” with the world of money, academia and much else besides. That’s because we see the world through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So we interpret the meaning of time and the creation of the world differently from others.
Today, as the season of Advent begins, we are invited to look beyond the immediate world which surrounds us. In today’s liturgy we are reminded once more that while we live in the world we are not of it: this is not our permanent home. We Christians are pilgrims passing through the world, in it but not permanently of it.
While we try to play a full part in making the world a just and better place for everyone, don’t you just wish from time to time that God would do something about the terrible things in the world that are beyond our control? ‘Why doesn’t God, in the face of so much suffering, do something’, we ask.
This wish for God to intervene is expressed by the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading when he says directly to God: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’. Then he and his fellow Israelites had just returned from forced exile in Babylon only to find that their expectations of a better life in their native land had come to nothing. Even their once magnificent Temple in Jerusalem was still in ruins. Isaiah was then overcome with the feeling of something he could not bear: God was angry and had disappeared from their lives.
Isaiah’s experience of the absence of God is also familiar to many of us. It is poignantly described here by R S Thomas in his poem ‘Moorland’.
It is beautiful and still;
the air rarefied
as the interior of a cathedral
expecting a presence. It is where, also,
the harrier occurs,
materialising from nothing, snow-
soft, but with claws of fire,
quartering the bare earth
for the prey that escapes it;
hovering over the incipient
scream, here a moment, then
not here, like my belief in God.
Thomas’ “here a moment, then not here” experience of God is similar to our own; and like Isaiah we feel that God is somewhere above the heavens, distant and far off, and we cannot find him either there or here on earth. We thus become more aware of God’s absence than His presence – and may even feel that there is overwhelming evidence that God does not exist.
So we can easily reach the stage where we learn to live without God and have no need of God in our lives. And yet we cannot bring ourselves to fully believe that there is NO God, no ‘Being’ responsible for the creation of the universe of which our world is such a tiny part.
Reflecting on the question ‘where are you, God’ Isaiah concludes that the reason God is remote and distant has more to do with us than God. It’s not that He has abandoned us but it is our selfishness, our wilfulness, our pride, our failure to forgive, our failure to love that make us wither and become spiritually dead.
So Isaiah pleads with God: ‘O that you would tear open the heavens and come down’. Help us, God, he says, to get us out of the hole we have dug for ourselves but cannot escape. We are incapable of saving ourselves so help us to turn back to you and follow your sensible ways.
Over the next 25 days of Advent, we prepare for celebrating how God responded to this plea and eventually did ‘tear open the heavens and come down’ in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the Gospel today Jesus asks us to ‘stay awake’. How might we do this? The first and most obvious way – if we feel God is far away – is to invite God back into our lives. We have to ask – it cannot happen without the humble asking. Another way is to join in the live-streamed weekday Masses and reflect on the Scriptures with me. And another way to stay awake, as Jesus asks elsewhere, is not to close our eyes to God’s presence in the good in the world; to God’s presence in those who love and support us; to God’s presence in the world all around us, especially in nature; and not to close our eyes to the victims of climate change, poverty and injustice.
Although Advent is not the Church’s official penitential season, you may wish to undertake some form of self-denial for these next 25 days – as a way of expressing your gratitude to God for your blessings. It’s not until we have to go without something that we realise how blessed and lucky we are to have it in the first place!
This year our Christmas will be very different – we will not be able to celebrate in church as we always have, or have as many people visiting us at home or we visiting them. And we won’t be able, for safety reasons, to go shopping for presents.
Regarding presents this year, I have asked family and friends – not to give me gifts this Christmas but, instead, to make a donation to a charity that helps impoverished families. I ask the same of you, my fellow parishioners – no gifts, please, but a donation instead either to your own favourite charity or to a charity here in Newcastle popularly known as The Bostey (The St Anthony’s Youth Education Service).
The Bostey supports children, young people and their families in the parish of St Anthony’s in Walker, Newcastle. Operating from premises at St Anthony’s Catholic Church, the charity is brilliantly managed and run to a very committed and talented team of professionals, ably supported by a highly competent Board of Directors. Parishioners of Holy Name donated over £10,000 to the charity in our 90th anniversary year and I would be delighted if, instead of giving me a present, you would make a donation instead to this charity. Details of how to do so are printed on the newsletter page of our website.
Holy Name, Jesmond
3 December 2020