Advent Week Two

(December 10th,  Is 40:1-5,9-11; 2Pet:3:8-14; Mk 1:1-8) – READ HERE

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Stillness in meditation is, despite appearances, the fast lane of the spirit. Without knowing it we are covering a lot of ground and we do not become aware of it until we realise there is no going back. People stop meditating for a variety of reasons. One is impatience; another is fear that we are travelling too fast. Advent is an opportunity to readjust our awareness in the strange, fluid dimension of time in which we live and die every day. Tough love can be this wake-up call.

Isaiah today seems captivated by the melting tenderness of God. It is different but not incompatible with last week’s emphasis on the painful estrangement between the human and the divine. Actually nothing is incompatible with God. The greater the difference, the deeper the paradox to be resolved and then the greater the delight in seeing opposites united. But, the divine shepherd? If you have ever met a shepherd close to his sheep you may have been surprised by his manner. On one hand tough, unsentimental, masculine; on the other, gentle, attentive and nurturing to even the weakest runts in his flock.

In today’s gospel we meet another prophet, John the Baptist, the last of the pre-Christian ones, the same age as Jesus. The tradition has imagined him hairy, unwashed and angry, ascetical and denouncing corruption and hypocrisy. Maybe there is more to him than this. Prophets are characteristically hyper-sensitive, lonely, dysfunctional and they rarely get their message over without offending people on all sides.

But their intention (the true prophet’s) is kindly: the health and well-being of others. The call to change our mind and way of seeing things and to adjust our life-style to this new way of being is painfully kind. The people who came out into the desert to hear John asked him ‘what shall we do?’ They were – as we are often are, and more than we realise – quietly desperate.

There is not much that fills us with unconscious dread more than the glimpse of our lives trickling away from us without meaning, without discovering what we were really supposed to do with our lives, trying to keep the accusatory awareness of our mistakes and self-deception from surfacing above the waves of consciousness. Prophets get this out in the open.

But the tension between patience and urgency can resolve as we see in the letter from Peter today: ‘with the Lord one day is like a thousand years’. If we see that, then two meditations a day seem more doable. John Main said (prophetically) this was the minimum. Even if it takes a millennium to understand and comply with this, it is a truth always worth listening to.

The prophet may appear to us this coming week in many guises. In whatever outward form, tough or gentle, the effect should be the same: to make the glimpse of life’s urgency last a little longer until we steadily look the truth about ourselves in the eyes. Hard as that may be, we will not fail to sigh with relief that the truth is finally out and we can stop pretending.

 

Advent Week One

(December 3rd  Is 63:16b-17,19b, 64:2-7; 1Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37) – READ HERE

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Prophets are not fortune-tellers, much as we secretly crave to know what’s going to happen – or to think that we could see into the future. Isaiah is a prophet and his gift to us is not a prediction but a reminder – an urgent one – to be really, fully present. He is someone who has experienced God and can’t get God out of his mind – although, like any God-believer, at times he would like to be free of God. Isaiah deals with this by asking this searching question of God: ‘why do you let us wander from your ways and let our hearts harden?’

We won’t get final answers to this kind of question, but just asking helps powerfully to clarify the human dilemma. If God is God – good, loving, caring for us – why do we go off-track so easily, so ruthlessly and so often? Why Syria? Why human trafficking? Why political prisoners and torture? Why off-shore tax havens? For that matter, why the hardening divisions associated with American and European politics? As Advent begins, this is a good question to keep fresh and to keep our waiting increasingly, not decreasingly, conscious. ‘Advent’ means that something is coming and, good or bad, is heading straight for us.

Isaiah yearns for a time when we would be ‘mindful of you in our ways,’ rather than constantly forgetting that ‘we are the clay and you the potter.’ So perhaps the answer to the human failure to be humane is not in God but in us and especially in our forgetfulness.

So, today and throughout this season, Jesus has one word for us: watch. It means make an effort to see, take heed, look both ways, be alert at all times. Watchfulness is an ancient virtue. It does not mean packing in more words, plans, reports, meetings and projections. If we are watchful these will be mercifully reduced and our decision-making and collaboration greatly enhanced. To watch means simultaneously keeping focused and expanding our field of awareness. If this balancing act is lost, we become either distracted or obsessive. Then everything falls apart.

So the answer to Isaiah’s question is not an answer, but a response. The response is a change in behaviour, a practice. The mantra coordinates that for the meditator. The sign that we are watching is what Paul, in today’s second reading, observes with spontaneous gratitude: ‘giving thanks that we do not lack any spiritual gift.’ It’s really and presently all given if we can but see it.

(I was looking up Mark Chapter 13 to check the Greek text and googled ‘Mk 13’. The search showed me a ‘bolt-action sniper’s rifle’ used by the US Seals. That’s one kind of watchfulness but not the one we should work on during Advent.)