Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent

Brothers and Sister in Christ, today Advent begins.

In the matter of Christmas, there are two different approaches, two philosophies, at play: the world’s and the Church’s. The world’s is: first the feast, then the fast. The shops have been talking of Christmas since October, and it’s all in full swing now – “first the feast”. And then it will suddenly end. Then it will be Hogmanay. Then, in January, back to work, short of money, perhaps abstaining from drink, to detox ourselves. The Christian philosophy works the other way round: first a fast of a kind, a waiting, a patience, a growing expectation, a call to conversion, a cleansing of the stable, a scouring of the manger of the heart. And then the glory of Emmanuel, of Word made flesh.   And Christmas, not one day or two days, but a liturgical season stretching into January.  We have Advent, we have this spiritual fast, because the gift that’s awaiting us is so great and our hope must expand to meet it.  For us Christmas is Christ. Christmas is a presence; it’s a name: Jesus. It’s a face, the face of a child, the face of a king. It is an outbreak of something long hidden. It’s unexpected love. It’s a sudden friendship, Christmas is that. And it fills us like a vaccine, an inoculation – against the virus of despair. It’s a kind of divine Vitamin D. It strengthens our spiritual bones and muscles.  It’s sunshine in winter, sunlight for the soul, banishing our lassitude.

Thus we cherish Advent: this time to grow into the gift. We have a Christmas Fayre after Mass. Shouldn’t we call it an Advent Fayre? Why just mimic the world? This year, Advent will run to three full weeks, and end with a 4th Sunday on Christmas Eve. So, as we know, Christmas Day on a Monday.  Advent will be three weeks. The 4th Sunday falls on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day will be Monday. The Feast of the Holy Family will fall on Sunday 31st, and the feast of Mary Mother of God, Octave Day of Christmas, on the Monday, New Year’s Day. Then the next Sunday will be the Epiphany, 7 January, and the last day of Christmastide will be Monday 8th January, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. Perhaps we can think of Sundays and Monday especially this year. Keep Sunday holy, and then those 3 Mondays. The whole thing 38 days. First Advent, then Advent – like a slow green plant blossoming into Christmas, a day, a season. And Advent calling us to a certain restraint, to reading and prayer, and offering its opportunities for the Sacrament of Reconciliation – all to grow into the Gift.

St Ignatius is famous for writing the Spiritual Exercises – 4 weeks of spiritual exercises, largely following the Gospel life of Christ, to bring people closer to God. Many people “do” these Exercises in one form or other, but not everyone can. What we all have though are the Spiritual Exercises of the liturgical year. Again, many saints wrote Rules, usually for mons and nuns or friars: St Basil, St Augustine, St Benedict, St Francis. They wrote these Rules to help their followers follow Christ in daily life. But we can’t all be monks and nuns. So the Church gives us the Rule and the rhythm of the liturgical year, enabling us to live through the life of Christ year upon year. “God by calling you, says St Paul today, has joined you to his Son Jesus Christ”. And every year the Church unfolds for us the life of Christ so that the life of Christ can unfold in us. Unfold in us through the patterns of seasons and feasts: Christ being conceived and born and shown forth, Christ preaching and healing us and through us, Christ dying and rising and going to his Father, Christ anointing us with the Holy Spirit and giving each of us his or her own task in the household of God. The Church’s year is our ladder to God. It’s the Chruch’s “public transport” to carry us to heaven. It’s our common following of Christ. If we connect with it, the power and light of the Holy Spirit flow into us from above and our daily life becomes possible, even beautiful.

So, there are two first summons for today: to welcome Advent, to welcome the gift of the liturgical year.

And so, last, let’s go back to Advent. Eastertide has a famous word: Alleluia. So does Advent: Come. Actually, not just “Come” by itself, but “Come” prefixed by “O”:” O Come”.

In the last week of Advent, to be precise from the 17th to 23rd inclusive, there are seven famous prayers used in the Office and found in the Lectionary too. They are called the “great O’s”. They are lush and beautiful prayers. Here’s one:

O Wisdom,
coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:

Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Here’s another:

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel;
you open and no one can shut;
you shut and no one can open:

Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house,
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.”

Today, in the Psalm we heard: “O Shepherd of Israel, hear us…O Lord. Rouse up your might, O Lord come to our help.” “O come, O come, Emmanuel” goes a famous Carol. And in the 1st reading, Isaiah prayed: “O, that you would tear the heavens open and come down – at your Presence the mountains would melt.”

This is a cry for God to do what he did after the Exodus, and come down on the mountain, make himself known again. He has done so in a different, gentler way now: in Jesus, in the Eucharist.

“O Come!”  This is what can lodge in us during Advent.

We talk of the cry of the earth – the earth we are abusing, and of the cry of the poor, who are left aside. We all know what is happening in Israel and Gaza. In Ukraine. As Christians, we have a responsibility here. In the Old Testament there was a growing longing for God to come, to make himself known, to right injustice, to put an end to sin and sorrow and death. In Advent that O come is meant to become ours. In John the Baptist and our Lady this long, ancient longing reached its highpoint. Mary’s womb became a great O which conceived and received God’s answer: Jesus, the Word made flesh, a child to melt hearts, not mountains. John and Mary’s longing can be ours.  The early Christians, and especially St Paul especially looked forward to Christ’s second coming. “You are waiting he tells the Corinthians, “for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed”. “Stay awake”, says Jesus, “for you never know when the time will come.” The Church is called, and we are called to become a great O, a great O Come.

It’s not just about us. This O embraces the planet, the earth, the whole groaning universe as St Paul describes it. It’s can hold all the suffering of the world, including those being purified after death.

We must long with the saints, with Mary and the Baptist, with Isaiah and St Paul, and long for everyone. We must grow the great “O” that love opens up in our hearts and act it out with one another. The other day I heard the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Cardinal Pizzaballa, say how recent events had intensified, as never before, the mutual hatred of Israelis and Palestinians: a closing of the heart. I have the Ukrainian priest who comes here tell his people: don’t let hatred of the enemy close your hearts. hatred.

“O come, O come Emmanuel”. May grace grow our hearts this Advent, grow them to the greatness of God’s gift.


RC Diocese of Aberdeen Charitable Trust.
A registered Scottish Charity Number SC005122