9 December 2010
Reflections by Bishop Donal McKeown on Advent 2010
The weeks of Advent were never easy for anybody – neither for busy parents, schools or businesses, nor for those who dread the thought of a lonely, joyless Christmas. And this year it is a particularly difficult Advent for many. It marks another painful year for those who are still involved in Church as well as for many who have severed any real contact with their local parish.
Despite political efforts to muster national energy, economic pressures make it hard to be hopeful about the future. And then the weather gets its claws into us as well!
It is an uncomfortable time for Church and State. And it is hard to miss the symbolism that we may be just at the beginning of a long, hard winter! Spring is not just around the corner.
But times of pain and stress are not new experiences. They have touched every generation and the People of God in every country. So what do the Bible and the living Tradition of the Church suggest?
For us, as members of the Church, Advent says that God is coming. That may sound trite. But firstly it means that we are going forward not back. The people of the Old Testament knew that the Day of the Lord would not be a reinstatement of some allegedly Golden Age in the past, but something completely new. Jesus had to drag the Apostles away from the idea of the restoring the Kingdom to Israel – and point them towards the future restoration of all things in himself.
Secondly, then our task is wait in joyful hope for the coming of Christ. We prepare to welcome the God of surprises, rather than – Pharisee and Sadducee-like – plan to manage his arrival in a way that will upset others but not us. That means that we are those who live open to God. We are not just as hawkers of God’s ideas. As a wise friend said recently, it does not even mean helping the poor like Jesus did – but seeking God where he is to be found among the poor and the marginalised! It is not so much that the pious should show Christ’s generosity to the needy. In the Gospel logic it is in the needy that the Christ of Bethlehem and of the Cross is revealed to the comfortable.
Thirdly, Church renewal will be God’s work as result of prayer, penance and discernment, and not our work as a result of a change in management style. New structures and new styles of being Church may have value – but only if they are suffused with a new way of looking at the world and God’s new way of looking at people. That means a new heart and not just new systems. It means repentance and not just restructuring. It involves spiritual renewal and not just doing battle with theological shibboleths. That is why the Eucharistic Congress theme of Communion with Christ and with one another offers such an important opportunity for Church renewal through relationships renewed in Christ.
And if Jesus is coming again, what do we do to prepare? Jesus did not come merely to build an institution. He came to build ‘the civilisation of love’, by healing broken human hearts and fractured relationships. He did that by proclaiming the truth in word and deed. He identified with the human condition and humbled himself even to death on a Cross. In every age that radical vision has been dimmed by the temptation to comfortable institutionalism. But the institutions are at the service of the mission. If the structures are not permeated with grace and the uncomfortable voice of God, they risk serving our short term interests rather than God’s Kingdom. Jesus built a little community of close followers. Perhaps we need to prioritise building little communities where God’s startling dream can be kept alive.
And there is huge crisis of confidence in the State. In Church we have discovered that the problems of the past were not just a failure of safeguards but had something fundamental to do with how we were Church. Similarly our economic woes were not just a result of poor oversight but the result of a system which was based on the inhuman Thatcherite creed that you cannot buck the market.
Yes, nobody wants to return to poverty and migration. Yes, the markets have produced great growth in wealth. But that has been accompanied by increasing levels of personal and communal dysfunctionality. If we doubt that, just look at
· the booming prison population,
· the growing levels of community relationship breakdown and loneliness
· the apparently unsustainable degradation of environment.
Those who wish to bring us beyond the present Titanic-style economic woes, have to recognise that it is not a question of returning to the past; that was based on the sand of a confidence built on communal delusion. We in Church have rightly been criticised for allegedly just tinkering with the system. Our political and business leaders will have to learn that the human person was not made for the economy, but the economy made for the human person. Self-delusion and corporate blindness are not a peculiarly church-specific failing. It would be a tragedy if citizens were to allow the powerful merely to tinker with the system rather than to question its apparent omnipotence.
It has taken civil society to help Church to see the truth about itself. People of faith can still help civil society to see beyond its equally great temptation to blindness.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict was clear that the role of the church is to ‘purify reason’ because ‘faith enables reason to do its work more effectively and to see its proper object more clearly’, for ‘a just society must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church’. The Church also has the task of reawakening ‘the spiritual energy without which justice….cannot prevail and prosper’ (§ 28a).
If we see this period as merely a chance to correct a past model and to try again, we will be disappointed. If we see this as a communal Advent, then we can allow ourselves to be surprised by joy rather than shattered by disappointment. Jesus tells us that the best is yet to come – and that it will not look like the past!
Notes to Editors:
· Bishop Donal McKeown is Auxiliary Bishop of Down and Connor
· See www.catholicbishops.ie for a special feature on Advent and Christmas 2010 for additional reflections and information on events in dioceses.
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