Advent I 2012
Advent Sunday: the beginning of the Church’s year; the beginning of the Advent season of preparation, but preparation for what? In popular piety, preparation for the coming of the Christ-child, as if the Christ-child hadn’t already come; a verging of the make-believe. Historically, Jesus, the Christ-child, was born over 2,000 years ago, he came to live among a specific people. But in another sense, he is constantly coming, not in the literal sense of being born, but coming moment by moment, situation by situation, inviting recognition and welcome; inviting a change of heart on the part of the secure towards the weak and the vulnerable; on the part of the well and comfortably-off towards those less fortunate than themselves. The Christ-child comes to challenge complacency and prejudice - and also our perhaps vague anthropomorphic expectations of how the Christ, creator of the universe, comes. Emmanuel, God with us.
The Advent season is also a season of preparation for the Second Coming of Christ – Christ’s return as judge – to bring in the age of God’s Rule. Some of us will remember the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue day when Dr Reza Shah, a Muslim theologian, told us that in the UK there were many more Muslims than Christians eagerly expecting the Second Coming of Christ. The prospect of Christ literally coming on the clouds in power and great glory is not an image that resonates with as many Christians in the west as perhaps once it did. But again, if we think of encounters with the hidden Christ who comes again, moment by moment, situation by situation, as judge, we might realise that we could well benefit from a season of preparation, a time for honing our practice of awareness and alertness to Emmanuel, God among us.
The famous Benedictine scholar, the late Jean le Clerq, once wrote: “When the Lord had disappeared in the cloud of His Glory, the apostles kept their eyes raised to heaven. Two angels came to tell them that they would not see him again until such time as he would return. Soon would come the time for them to spread out over the whole world, to sow the seeds of the Gospel, to plant the church.”
“Monks,” he said – and had he been writing now, I’m sure he would have added ‘nuns’, “Monks, however, have the privilege of continuing the watch. They know that they will not see the Lord; they will live by faith. Nevertheless, there will they remain. Their cross will by to love without seeing, and yet to watch constantly, to keep their eyes on nothing but God, invisible yet present. Their testimony before the world will be to show, by their very existence alone the direction in which one must look. It will be to hasten by prayer and desire the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God.”
The very existence of the monk, the nun, the monastery is a signpost for others. Yes! but what about the reality of their lives; day by day, hour by hour? Le Clerq says: “They know that they will not see the Lord; they will live by faith. There they will remain. Their cross will be to love without seeing, and yet to watch constantly, to keep their eyes on nothing but God, invisible yet present.”
The cross is to watch constantly for the God who comes and to love without seeing any great manifestation of God, but to love in a down-to-earth, practical way the person, the situation, we are faced with in any given moment: as we prepare lunch in the kitchen, or fold the laundry, wrestle with the photocopier of work out the jobs rota. Each job is challenge enough to do well and with love. The invitation is to see the way we respond to that challenge in terms of the coming of Christ - that “watching constantly.”
When we read St Benedict’s Rule we find it permeated by the same theme: be on the alert, because Christ is coming to you in each of your sisters and brothers, in the abbot, the guest, the sick and the frail, the poor and the pilgrim; in the Office, at prayer, at work. BE ALERT; WATCH! EXPECT! Because each seemingly mundane situation and encounter has an eternal significance. DON’T SQUANDER IT! And yet it is so easy to dismiss things and people as unimportant – insignificant. We need seasons like Advent to help us sharpen up. And the sharpness, or bluntness, or luke-warmness, affects the vibrancy of the “signpost”. True, for some folk the mere existence of a monastic community is a pointer, a reminder, an encouragement, as is the sound of the monastery bell for some who can hear it. But if the monks and nuns who live there, and the people who frequent the monastery, are really living with that sense of expectation, and trying to live with that quality of love, they will be, in however tiny a measure, an expression of God’s kingdom realised on earth… and I believe that is our calling.
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