by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Watch for this: The time is coming”—GOD’s Decree—”when I will keep the promise I made to the families of Israel and Judah. When that time comes, I will make a fresh and true shoot sprout from the David-Tree. He will run this country honestly and fairly. He will set things right. That’s when Judah will be secure and Jerusalem live in safety. The motto for the city will be, ‘GOD Has Set Things Right for Us’.”
Jeremiah 33, 14-16

“Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened…with the cares of life…Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen.”
Luke 21, 25-28, 34-36

As I read today’s gospel, I found myself wondering whether Jesus actually said the words that Luke attributes to him. Are they Luke’s words or Jesus’ words? We do know that, when Luke wrote his Gospel, there was much speculation in the early Christian community that Jesus’ return was imminent. So maybe they are Luke’s words. If the comments do belong to Jesus, we have to remember that he was a man of his time and culture, with human limitations and no divine prompting or inside help for interpreting the signs of his times.

When we look at the events going on in our world and the decisions adopted by those elected to guide their respective nations through difficult times and circumstances, we can understand why many ordinary and thoughtful citizens are throwing their hands up in horror or resorting to cynicism as a way of venting their disillusionment. Many others are expressing their frustration and disapproval through demonstrations and protests.

While there are many different ways of interpreting the signs of the times and responding with positive, negative or neutral action or comment, the message of Jesus is not to fall into concluding that the terror we see around us is a prelude to more terror. He urges us to call on our resources of hope and to look to liberation. Those resources and the source of that liberation are to be found in God.

Advent urges us to be wide awake and alert to the signs of our times so as not to miss the opportunities each day presents us for encountering the divine in the people and events all around us. If we can only see, we will notice unmistakable signs of God’s presence in the ordinary happenings of our daily lives. The clear message of today’s gospel is to not let ourselves be paralysed by fear of the sky falling in, the threats of war-mongers or the unpredictability of self-serving politicians. Rather, we are encouraged by Jesus to see every day of our lives as a gift from God and to share that gift with others.

Today’s gospel reading has a twin focus on endings and patient waiting. Shooting stars, the sun dimming and the moon no longer giving light are signs of an impending end to life and the created world. But such endings are really a prelude for something new to be born. That implies waiting patiently for the new to arrive. People in the 21st century have been conditioned to expect instant responses to all their needs. Waiting patiently is not exactly our strong point. We don’t relish being asked to be patient.

Thirty years ago, the Dutch-born spiritual writer Henri Nouwen published a diary entitled The Road to Daybreak. In his entry for Tuesday May 13, he wrote about what he called the battle for spiritual survival. He had not long returned to the United States after two years working among poor people in Peru. Despite their abject poverty, these people impressed Nouwen through the simplicity of their lives and their infectious happiness. There was a stark contrast between them and the people he encountered on his return to North America. This is what he wrote:

“What strikes me about being back in the United States is the full force of restlessness and the loneliness and the tension that holds so many people. The conversations I had today were about spiritual survival. Many of my friends feel overwhelmed by the many demands made on them. Few feel the inner peace and joy they so much desire. To celebrate life together, to be together in community, to simply enjoy the beauty of creation, the love of people and the goodness of God – these seem such far-away ideals. There seems to be a mountain of obstacles preventing people from being where their heart wants them to be. So painful to watch and experience! The astonishing thing is that the battle for survival has become so normal that few people believe that there can be a difference. Oh, how important is discipline, community, prayer, silence, caring presence, simple listening, adoration, and deep, lasting, faithful friendship. We all want it so much, and still the powers suggesting that it is all fantasy are enormous. But we have to replace the battle for power with the battle to create space for the spirit.” (Henri Nouwen, The Road to Daybreak, Doubleday, New York, 1988) Nouwen could have said the same about every “developed” country.

In her book To Dance with God, Gertrud Mueller Nelson writes: “Brewing, baking, simmering, fermenting, ripening, germinating, gestating are the processes of becoming, and they are symbolic states of being that belong in a life of value, necessary for transformation.” (Gertrud Mueller Nelson, To Dance with God, Paulist Press, N.Y. 1986) It’s no wonder, then, that Advent puts the focus on Mary, who not only had to make a difficult decision (“Let it be done to me according to your word”, Luke 1, 38) but had to wait patiently, like every mother, for her child to develop within her body.

To all intents and purposes, the season of Advent is almost dead. It is sandwiched between “Black Friday” bargain sales, which have spread like a contagion across the world, and the pre-Christmas frenzy of shopping for presents, putting up decorations, attending a succession of “Christmas drinks”. Advent has been swallowed up by commercialism and partying. We Christians need to make a conscious effort to reclaim Advent and Christmas. I suspect we will be successful only if we make time for quiet reflection with some of those people for whom the month leading up to the birth of Jesus was a time of darkness, questioning, doubt and uncertainty. Mary of Nazareth was familiar with giants in her tradition who had been “favoured” by God. She knew how Moses had baulked at God’s invitation: “Why not ask Aaron? He’s more eloquent than I am!” She had learned how Isaiah tried to excuse himself: “Remember, I stutter and stammer.” She was familiar with the story of Jonah who was so scared that he ran off in the other direction. And she would have been terrified by the gossip doing the rounds, and asking herself what was going on in the minds of her parents, the neighbours and Joseph. Yet she still found the courage to say “Yes”. Mary is a model for those of us who realise that we are being nudged to live our lives more deeply, to change behaviours that are stopping us from growing healthily, who want the satisfaction of making the courageous decisions we know we are being called to make, but who don’t want to pay the price.

And what about Joseph? I wonder if he ever felt as though he had been sidelined. Do you think he might have caught himself saying: “What exactly is going on around here? Whatever it is, I’m sure I’ll be the last one to find out!” I find it extraordinary that none of the Gospel writers attributes even one word to him. Those of us who feel overlooked, left out or forever perplexed and questioning might find some satisfaction in reflecting on Joseph. Spending time with Mary or Joseph over the next few weeks might help us put some meaning into Advent, but better still into our own lives.