Second Week of Advent:

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Last week we looked at Advent as an illumination of desire. Human beings, who are creatures of desire, experience growth in self-transcendence and through the transformation of desire – what we want and how we pursue it. Eventually, we see that we do not want only what we like but we want the happiness of others. In that self-recognition we expand into the kingdom, free form the self-centred orbit of our self-made suffering. The catalyst for this transformation is to discover progressively that we are desired by a love beyond our wildest fantasies.

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Advent is a time to sense how this desire beyond the event horizon of our imagination is hurtling towards us in all the sweet majesty of its stillness. All of this is poetry until we meditate. Then it becomes ‘experience’ – but beyond all that we normally think of as experience. The early Christian thinkers who drew the ground-plan of this theology changed our anthropology in the process. The way we understand God changes the way we feel about ourselves. St Gregory Nazianzen, for example, wrote in the 4th century that in Jesus the Word of God comes to its own image in the human, ‘to unite himself to an intelligent soul.. to purify like by like’. This insight helps us imagine this core mystery of Christian faith from the inside as well as an external event.

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God forms into the human even beyond the event horizon of the cosmos. But that horizon is equally present in the deepest and brightest mystery of the human soul. Thus we can speak of the two births of the Word – in God eternally and in my time-bound soul. And it comes in three waves, in the great Beginning of all things, in Bethlehem on some unknown date and at the unpredictable end of time. The trick of our Advent this year of the Lord 2016 is to relate all this to Black Friday hysteria, to tinsel and sentimentality and to Christmas trees in public squares – or rather sharply to distinguish them.

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This coming of God into the human, from beyond and from within, is the great revolution of human intelligence. Once we have started to consider it we are never the same. It redefines power and weakness, richness and poverty, time and eternity. In other words, the Word made flesh explodes the fission bomb of the paradox of reality. It will never allow us again the cheap indulgence of dualistic answers. We have been plunged into the reality that is deeper than the atom.

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We are drawn to this almost in the same measure as we dread it. But in this advent – and our meeting with what comes towards us we discover the joy of being, the freedom to love and the supreme delight of sharing in the life of the source of our selves.

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In Amazonia there is a stretch where the two great rivers of the Amazon and Rio Negro meet. Their confluence is dramatic, the black river and the sandy-coloured river. For six kilometres they run side by side without mixing because of the differences in temperature and flow speed. But eventually they recognise each other as water and become one.

First Week of Advent 2016: We are creatures of desire

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We have been waiting for Advent for most of the year. (The Word was made flesh on March 25th, on the Feast of the Annunciation). But, like a seed silently growing in the ground day and night, its silence begins to be audible in the four weeks of Advent. If we can listen to the rising volume of the silence of the Incarnation during this season of heightened expectancy, we will be better set to celebrate Christmas as it is expects to be celebrated.

The nativity into our world of sense of the divine human and the human God is endlessly mysterious – and so it is easily lost in the yuletide razzmatazz. It reveals and conceals simultaneously. In Advent we begin to sense how God must be both very daring and very shy.

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As Advent is folded in four, let’s take the experience of waiting in that number of stages. The first is the dull awareness that there is something to wait for. This is felt rather than thought. The feeling of waiting however sharpens awareness and awakens us to our selves. It’s funny that we should first be awakened by longing, by the pain of not having what we long for and which we can’t even properly name. But Homo Sapiens is naturally discontented and ever hungry for more. Our satisfactions are wonderful but don’t last long. Fulfilling one desire soon shows us that it hasn’t concluded the sense of incompleteness that possesses our ever changeable selves. Before the froth of one wave of success hits the beach another is building up behind it. We are creatures of desire. So, we instinctively and fatally interpret each moment as painful or pleasing.

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As we see this, we mature and become better at raising the young. It makes us tender and compassionate to them. We are touched and amused at how ecstatic they are when their intense but still simple hopes are fulfilled. But it also makes us aware both of how we should help to shape their desires and of how we must keep our promises. Through this awareness created by growth we learn to be other-centred (some of the time). We see the provocative wisdom of putting the happiness of others on the same plane as our own. Children exemplify this for us. Not surprisingly then, when the wisdom of God comes in human packaging He comes as a child. We have to look after Him. Bow to Him. Tend to Him, change His nappies, comfort His crying. The gift we have been waiting for fulfils our desire to the degree that it turns our attention off ourselves.

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I have seen some very self-centred and anguished adults, tormented by the disappointments of their long waiting, transformed by a newborn child, lifted into a kind of happiness they could never achieve by fulfilling their desires.

Humanity too has been waiting, since it was first awakened by its its enslavement to desire. We have been waiting for God to burst through our images and desires projected onto our self-made gods. God takes us by surprise. He arrives as a helpless baby that we have to suckle and protect so that it can survive and grow. We parent God. But the growth that follows becomes wondrous as it was for Mary and Joseph. Our so called ‘spiritual journey’.

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

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In contemplation God is born in us, how we don’t know, but at some point we feel the pangs of birth and rising wonder replaces the cycle of desire. Advent makes sense because growth means life revealing and unfolding on new levels of experience and meaning. Daily business, dealing with things, planning for contingencies, taking breaks to escape the drudgery is all one level. It is the literal level where success and failure are what they seem because they are labelled this by others. But another level manifests where all these judgements and activities also appear symbolic, reflecting another dimension of reality, expressing a new way of being, a fresh self-awareness propelling us from a tortured world of judgement and dissatisfaction into a realm filled with the wonder of the exchanging of gifts and real, not sentimental, innocence.

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The build-up to this is patience, the contemplative art of waiting. We have lost this art of practical wisdom in the modern world but meditation restores it. A contemplative Advent will re-enchant Christmas for us, sparing us from the tedium of its crude consumerism.

We become patiently aware of what we waiting for as it hurtles towards us through the interstellar spaces, homed in on us, eager for us, desiring us, transforming what and how we desire as we become more acutely aware of it.

Emily Dickinson wondered:

How News must feel when travelling
If News have any Heart
Alighting at the Dwelling
‘Twill enter like a Dart

We are humble creatures of desire. So, we merely repeat the cycle of pain and pleasure until we understand that we are also desired. What we truly long for, the love that creates us, has already targeted us. That is why we long for it. It is what we long for because God longs for us.