Advent is long this year, the longest it can be – four full weeks, with Christmas Day falling on a Sunday at the end of the 4th week. This is a grace, surely. It’s an opportunity. It’s a call. We might think of Advent as Lady Advent, as a person, a messenger, an intervention. She comes to us dressed in purple, with an escort of prophets. Like a mother with a sleepy teenage son, she prods us and says, “time to wake up, dear”. “Get dressed, come to the window and look who’s coming.” And then as Christmas does come, Lady Advent will be transformed into Lady Mary, and she will hand us her son.
In today’s Gospel, our Lord paints a vivid picture. First, he recalls the biblical Flood, and the days before, full of carefree eating and drinking and marrying. We can imagine the pubs and restaurants bursting with revellers and diners, and behind drawn curtains the usual business going on in bedrooms. We eat and drink, to keep ourselves alive. We take wives, take husbands, and have babies, to keep the race alive. It’s all good. But it isn’t all there is to human life. The scary punch line is: “and they suspected nothing.” They were seriously out of touch. And the Flood came. The punishment was appropriate because their own hearts were already “flooded” by worldliness.
Yes, yes, we get on with life and do what we need to do. But Advent says, let’s not equate ourselves with this. Let’s not confuse secondary and primary, superfluities with essentials. We are always greater. “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul”, says the Entrance Antiphon of this first Advent Mass. Isaiah then: “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the Temple of the God of Jacob”. Up to Jerusalem, says the Psalm. Out of bed, says St Paul, and put on the armour of Christ.
I know a very Christian couple, whose whole family was going through a hard time. Every evening they would light a candle before an icon of our Lady and Child and sit before it, the other lights off, for twenty minutes or so. And so peace came back into their lives. “the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him”, says the Book of Lamentations. “It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:25-26). Perhaps this Advent we can try to create for ourselves and our families such a still space: an island apart from the Flood, a Noah’s Ark, a portion of John the Baptist’s wilderness, a womb like our Lady’s, a manger, an inner crib. Families can be constantly busy with children and jobs and all the rest. Life again! But the wisdom is that the couple must make sure they take some time just for each other, or their relationship will fray. And so with our Christian lives too, our connection with the Lord deserves some deliberate attention. We will find during Advent that the Holy Spirit will nudge our consciences in that direction. He will give us tips. If we say some prayers every day, it can help just to say them more slowly. If we read Scripture every day, perhaps we can linger a little over it. Perhaps pause some of our gratifications and distractions. Advent lends itself to reflection. It’s a time to simplify and re-align ourselves. The world is forever telling us how much we need. We should go the other way and see what perhaps we can do without or give to charity, and consider what our hearts really need. It’s a good Catholic practice to try and make room for an extra Mass during the week, and to prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I’m sure, the Holy Spirit will inspire each of us.
These are all small ways not to be taken unawares, not to be overwhelmed by the Flood. The Lord is coming. There are ways to prepare a place for him, in our hearts and homes and churches. “I will give no sleep to my eyes, / to my eyelids I will give no slumber, (said King David)/till I find a place for the Lord, / a dwelling for the Strong One of Jacob” (Ps 132:4-5). The other day there passed away an abbot in Germany I knew well. He was a daunting man, forthright, no nonsense, but every Advent he would spend hours on his knees in the monastery church making the most elaborate and imaginative crib, complete with fauna and flora, and model railways, valleys and hills, stable and manger and all the rest. He became like a small boy again. And so his whole life, really, was an Advent, and when Sister Death came he could welcome her peacefully.
The world and the Evil One want to reduce us to shoppers and fun-lovers and people who are angry with each other and obsessed with doing our own thing. By contrast, Advent tells us something far better about ourselves. It tells us that what the universe is at the macro level, we are at the micro level. We are made to house God, to be a place for the Lord, his Temple. We are John the Baptists to whom the Word comes, Marys whose hearts are a womb to shelter God’s Son. We are the flesh of the Word, the bread and wine that is to become something so much more than itself: the body of Christ for the life of the world and the glory of his Name.
Lady Advent, four whole weeks of her. Let’s take her as our guide.
St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen, 27 November 2022