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Yearning in Hope

2016-11-29 08:29

Written by Fr Denis McBride C.Ss.R. for The Tablet - 26/11/2016

As we approach Advent, we face a new liturgical year and leave another year behind us. This season resets the clocks and calendars of Christian worship as Advent summons us to a new beginning, encouraging us to move away from what has hurt us or haunted us in the past, and inviting us to dream again.


As we prepare for Christmas, however, most of us are absorbed more by planning the holiday celebrations. We worry about what the weather will be like and if it will cause difficulties for relatives and friends who are coming to stay; we worry about how everyone will get along, whether we will eat or drink too much, whether we will say the wrong thing and upset someone, whether we will manage a grateful smile even after unwrapping another pair of socks that is not entirely wanted or needed. And, of course, there is the worry about getting the right present for our friends and family. 


The high streets start in late October with all the decorative paraphernalia, ensuring that by the time the real feast of Christmas arrives, everyone is weary of Christmas trees and fairy lights and decorations and canned carols. The retail theatre is putting on another show; and, before Christmas dinner is even over, it is time to move on to a different drama, to the Boxing Day sales and promises of bargains galore, to say nothing of the opportunity to return those misjudged presents. 


The commercial world is delighted to borrow this Christian feast for its own purposes; so, what can we do in our parishes to remember the reason behind the festivities? How can we recall that, at the heart of the Advent season is the recognition that we are a people unashamedly centred on God, and waiting on God? We gather to celebrate the coming of God in Jesus and wait for the return of Jesus at the end of time. 


Many parishes and families make Jesse trees during Advent as they prepare for Christmas. The name of the tree comes from Isaiah 11:1: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” 
We adorn a Jesse tree with illustrations and ornaments that represent people, prophesies and events that recall God’s promise and its fulfilment. With a focus on Old Testament figures, the Jesse tree is a particularly good activity for the younger children in the parish to learn about salvation history. It is also very useful for older children (and adults) wanting to review the story of God in the Old Testament, connecting the Advent season with the faithfulness of God across 4,000 years of history.


Advent sets the tone not only for the solemnity of Christmas, when we welcome the beginning of the Gospel, but also for the whole liturgical year. In spite of all our feasts and fasts, our sung high Masses and our private devotions, our litanies of praise and petition, our carefully devised mission statements and pastoral programmes, Advent reminds us that we cannot possess God, and we cannot see God. Like the old people at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, we can only wait for God to let himself be known.


As we look back and look forward in the liturgy there is structured dissent from the pervading culture that everything that is of value is happening now. We express our belief, through a community setting of narration and performance, that we all have a greater power than ourselves to genuflect before, something grander than our own experience to bow down before, something higher than our own insight to acknowledge, something that is beyond us, yet is mysteriously part of ourselves. 


So the season of Advent gives us time to reflect on both the past and the future. In the first week, we look forward to the coming of Christ at the end of the world, a subject rarely mentioned even in church. 
In the second week, we look at the towering figure of John the Baptist who stands between the hidden life of Jesus and the start of his public ministry. 


In the third week, the imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus if he is the awaited one: Jesus invites them, and indeed all of us, to attend to what he says and does, then make up our own minds. 
And, in the fourth week, we celebrate the quiet man of Christianity, Joseph, husband of Mary, whose life was interrupted on so many occasions and who responded to so many alarms and diversions before he eventually arrived to make a home for his family in Nazareth. 


Advent invites us into a story larger than our own, one where we can feel at home and find our own place. We come face to face with our ancestors in the faith when they are troubled and exultant; we are drawn into the struggle of their lives; we are exalted by their daring and faith. 


It is our own story writ large.

 

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