“To you, O God, I lift up my soul”. It’s today’s Entrance Antiphon and Psalm Response. It’s the leitmotif of Advent. “I” = all of us, the whole Church, all of us believers, in the midst of the world, lifting up our souls to God on behalf of everyone, all the people we carry in our hearts and more.
What is Advent? It’s like a cry in the night. It’s a great longing. Take today’s readings. Here’s Jeremiah, at a bad time in Israel’s history, longing for the Son of David, for the people to be saved and comforted, for Jerusalem to be a holy place. Here’s the Psalmist: “Lord, make me know your ways; Lord, teach me your paths”: he wants to know God’s will in his life. Then comes St Paul, a pastor, expressing the hope that the Christian community in Thessalonica, will grow in faith and love, become holier, be blameless before Christ and his saints when they come: think of a mother or father wanting their children to be good people, to keep their faith and live their faith. And finally, here’s Jesus in the Gospel saying: Stay awake, don’t fall asleep, don’t be dragged down, look up, look beyond, be ready for my Coming.
These are like musical fragments of the great Advent cry. “Come, Lord Jesus, and don’t delay. O come, O come, Emmanuel.”
This is a time of the year when bugs and ‘lurgies’ go around. Advent is like that, but a good one. We’re meant to catch it. We’re meant to catch the desire, the longing, the hope – of the prophets, and the early Christians, and Mary and Joseph and John the Baptist. Go to the liturgy and get infected!
What is Advent? 4 Sundays, 3 weeks and 1 day this year. It’s a time to rediscover our greatness. “Watch yourselves”, says Jesus. That is, guard your greatness. Don’t let it be diminished, coarsened, dragged down, weighed down. There are so many things to do for Christmas – how we burden ourselves! They’re not the whole of us. Jesus speaks of not being “weighed down”. John Cassian was a 5th c. monk. He compared the human soul to a feather. It’s meant to be so light that one breath of wind, one impulse of the Holy Spirit can lift it up…but one splash of water, one drop of oil keep it grounded. It’s good to think of the things that drag us down and to try and lighten ourselves by letting them go. It’s good to let go of our resentments and grudges, or our self-doubt, or constant worrying, or our playing the victim. We’re bigger, we’re greater than that. We’re meant to look out, look up, look to the heights. Jesus mentions debauchery and drunkenness, sex and alcohol, and the “cares of life”, money worries perhaps. “Guard your greatness”. Perhaps focus on one thing to combat. Here’s a suggestion. Think of social media and the internet. Let’s use these things, but not live in them. We can visit the net, but not stay in it. It would be like staying in Disneyland! Let’s go in and come out. We know it has a power to draw us in, absorb us, take us over, drag us down. We mustn’t let it master us; we can master it.
What is Advent? It isn’t Christmas. It’s a preparation for Christmas. It’s a journey to Christmas. It’s furnishing the smelly, tumble-down stable of our hearts so that Jesus can be born again in us. Prayer and hope are the best we offer.
What is Advent? A time for ordering, prioritizing our hopes. A time for allowing God’s hopes for us, God’s promises, to hold first place. We can access these in Scripture.
“Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life. Sometimes one of these hopes may appear to be totally satisfying without any need for other hopes. Young people can have the hope of a great and fully satisfying love; the hope of a certain position in their profession, or of some success that will prove decisive for the rest of their lives. When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain… we need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great hope, which must surpass everything else. This great hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of hope. God is the foundation of hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety. His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; his Kingdom is present wherever he is loved and wherever his love reaches us. His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect. His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is “truly” life.” (Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 30-31).
“To you, O God, I lift up my soul.” And where better to start than with today’s celebration of the Eucharist?
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 2 December 2018