This is a talk given at our advent retreat last weekend. Everyone from Year 9 and upwards is welcome to come to our advent and Easter retreats; they are a great chance to meet other young people and explore our faith further at these important times of year.
Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, Verses 1-8
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
A time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
All these feelings, these emotions, these stages of life. I’m sure we are all familiar with most, if not all, of them- in some way. Listing them out like this gives us a glimpse of the complexity of life, of what we can go through as individuals and communities, what we can feel.
A healthy approach to life is to have time for each of these, as the reading suggests. Too often we don’t make time for all the emotions, we pick and choose. We don’t let ourselves feel certain emotions, we might be scared of them, or not feel worthy. But we are brave enough, we are worthy! We need to consider things like grief, and sorrow. It’s healthy to be happy sometimes, and to be a bit down at others. To be ambitious sometimes, and to relax at other times. To fight for what we believe in, and to choose our battles. To dance, and to mourn. Having all of these things is what makes us human.
Just as human life is complicated and has many aspects, so is Christian life. Perhaps even more so, because we have this whole other dimension. The big guy in the sky. The Almighty. The infinite, all-loving, all-present creator. The Alpha and the Omega. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It can feel like our faith dumps a whole other load of responsibilities and checklists and things to do on us.
We’re meant to be:
- Joyful and grateful for everything God gives us, including Himself.
- Sorry for sinning against Him.
- Trying our best, to discover and become the Saints He made us to be.
- Pray and have a dialogue with God through our lives.
- Stay awake and stand firm, as the Bible says, waiting for when Christ comes again.
How are we meant to do all of this?! It was enough just being human. It’s easy to see why we can feel put off at times, why having our faith seems like an unnecessary extra load. But we shouldn’t feel like that!
And we’ve all had those glimpses, sometimes they come more often than others, of the joy and inspiration we can get from our faith- that we can find nowhere else. Those moments remind us it is worth sticking at, but at times of struggle and confusion, those moments can fade away. But we can also not help ourselves by focussing too much on one aspect. I don’t know about you, but sometimes it can feel like we’re always talking about what sinners we are, or how life is hard. I know sometimes when I’m talking to groups on retreat here, and I focus on a particular aspect of our faith, I am concerned I sound a bit depressing, or completely out of touch. So it can be really helpful to have a structure to draw our attention to the different aspects of Christian life. So that we are sort of forced to change our perspective, even if we don’t feel like it.
And the Church gives us this incredible way of helping us to develop all the different aspects of the Christian life. We have different seasons of the year in the Church: Advent, Lent, Holy Week, Easter and Christmas, as well as feast days which celebrate the Saints.
In each season, the Church invites us to focus on a different aspect of Christian life. Like I said, it can be good to be dragged into a different perspective. God always has a message for each of us in these seasons, even if we don’t feel like being joyful, or saying sorry, or changing our lives for Jesus.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that today we’re going to be looking at Advent. What the focus of Advent is and how we can use Advent to enhance our lives as Christians.
My definition for advent (which I definitely didn’t nick off anyone else) is: Advent is a season of devout and joyful preparation for the coming of Jesus.
What do we mean by devout, and joyful? What comes to your mind when you hear those words?
Devout can make us think of pious, someone who is holier than thou. It doesn’t really mean that. Someone can be devout in something other than their faith. Someone who is passionate about a cause, or a sport or a subject could be considered devout. To be devout is to be firm, resolute, whole-hearted.
Joyful is often used in the same way as happiness, and they are similar in some ways. But joyfulness is something more profound- especially for people of faith. Joy is the sense that everything is going to be OK, because God loves us. We can be joyful even when the world is throwing us an absolute stinker of a day, or a week, or a year. We know that even though everything else seems to be going wrong, God loves us and has us close to Him.
So: advent is a time of devout and joyful preparation for the coming of Christ.
But, again, what do we mean by the coming of Christ?!
We remember Jesus coming to Earth at Christmas. When God became man, in one of the humblest ways imaginable. Reminding ourselves that this happened can be a great source of joy for us, that God loves us so much that He came down to Earth, He became one of us. In Him we have hope and joy, no matter what the world around us is doing, no matter how undeserving of His love and gifts we may be. Like the reading we hear at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve/Day: ‘The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.’
But there are other ways to think about the coming of Jesus. Jesus told us again and again that, when he ascended into Heaven He was leaving us for now, but that He would return. He tells us parables about how we must be ready, at all times of year and all hours of the day. Ready for Him to come back. This is the question we must ask ourselves in advent. If Jesus were to come to Earth this Christmas, not just in the Gospel or in the Eucharist, but as recognisably as He did 2000 years ago, would we be ready? What sort of state would He find us in?
It isn’t just the Jesus on the clouds we are waiting for. We can and do encounter Jesus every day, even when we don’t realise. In scripture, in the Eucharist, in our neighbours and the least of those in our society.
In scripture we hear God’s words, both before, during and after Jesus’ time on Earth. It’s important that we remember that when we read scripture, God is speaking to us in our lives today. So, it can help if we try and read it prayerfully.
Do we go to Mass as much as we should? Do we concentrate, or let our mind wander?
Do we always love our neighbour? Especially those who are poor and vulnerable, who can offer us nothing in return. A priest in a Parish, in a particularly deprived area of a city in Lancashire. He told me that, when visiting some of his new parishioners, he saw where Christ would be born if he returned today.
This is the question we should ask ourselves this advent: are we ready to let Jesus into our lives?