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Homily - First Sunday of Advent A - Bishop McKeown

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Last Sunday we celebrated Christ as the Universal King. That marks our belief in the final destination of the world where all things will be reconciled in Jesus as Lord of heaven and earth. It reassures us that, in the divine scheme of things, everything will make sense. We are not merely heading to a black hole at the end of a frenetic but ultimately meaningless life. Today we mark the beginning of our faith story with Advent when we focus, not on the end of times but on hoping despite our real incompleteness here and now. What themes do our scripture readings suggest?

Firstly, it is healthy to look forward to something that gives us a sense of direction in life. But Advent asks us what we want, what we really, really want. The marketplace tells us what we ought to want and what business wants us to want. Adverts try to seduce the younger generation into an addiction to the fleeting and the superficial, showing us banal pictures of fake happiness and instant gratification. For people of faith, it is interesting that, early in St John's Gospel, Jesus sees two people following him. He turns to them and asks, "What do you seek?" (Jn 1:38). If we seek wholeness and holiness, that is the core question that Jesus asks us to face. In a culture that tells us to obey our thirst and just feel good, Christianity invites us to look into the jumble of experiences and emotions that make up our life – and to not fear what we find there. What does each one of us really yearn for?

That is why Advent is not merely a time for shopping and anticipating Christmas, Advent has its own wisdom. Our hunger for healing is individual to you and to me. We all carry our own hurts and dreams. As an individual, bring to the Lord your hunger to be loved and the yearning to be healed. If we spend no time in the year being conscious before God asking how we answer Jesus' question, then we live on the surface. In Advent, take time with the question from Jesus to you, "What do you seek?" If we are not growing in our answer to that adult question, Christmas remains just a childish bauble, avoiding the big question and giving small-minded answers.

Secondly, the winter darkness will pass – but the cloud that hangs over many people will last more than a couple of months. The economic crisis, political stalemate, extreme weather conditions and the threat of war – all of these hobble our hunger for hope. That gloomy environment says that religious faith is just wishful thinking, based on no scientific proof. Advent is the time for us dare to dream and hope. Are we able to set out like Mary and Joseph, not sure where God is leading us, ready to be surprised beyond our dreams? Are we able, like the prophet Isaiah, to believe that human beings can live in peace and solidarity? Are we prepared, like John the Baptist, to go out into the wilderness and witness to a different way of looking at the world? Can we act as if we believed that Jesus is coming, in the most unexpected of ways, to make sense of the mess that we have made of this beautiful world?

All of this means talking honestly about where we find ourselves. We are pulled between the climate conference's call to reduce our consumption and slow down global warming – and the incessant cry that we must increase our consumption in order to keep the economic system going. The economic system tells us that it is really just about me and my rights and my wants. But the world is crying out that it is about us and not just about me. This is a time for the prophetic voice that is a characteristic of Advent. Missing out on Advent means missing so much. Can we speak the uncomfortable truths in love to a culture that has little vision beyond screaming that I want to have the right to do what I want.

Thirdly, our synodal journey in the Church takes these realities seriously. We are asked to dream a divine dream for the world – and to discern what concrete actions we can take to prepare a way for the Lord. In the Gospel, Jesus asks his followers to 'stay awake'. Isaiah, John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph had to stay wake in order to be led down dusty, dry roads. The danger of the synodal pathway is that we have some chats, think of a few human ideas that we like or that might work - and then go back to the unproductive ways of the past. Advent is a time for journeying as a church, for seeking the star that will guide our path, for staying awake with prayerful hearts that can see the little signs of God at work in our church. Populist agendas can be very transient. Loud voices can say much but nourish little. A synodal church is about having ears for the voice crying in the wilderness. That can happen only in the context of prayer and adoration. It is no coincidence that the same letters spell the words 'silent' and 'listen'. A prayerful heart knows how to avoid using the same letters to spell the word 'tinsel'. Can we make space amid the suffocating tinsel to be silent and to listen? Jesus asks us to be prophetic voices, not merely trying to fit into a constricting cultural dream. Only people of prayer will have that courage.

Today we begin four full weeks of Advent. We need them all. Today we begin a year's celebration of the 150th anniversary this Cathedral's (St Eugene‘s Cathedral, Derry) opening for worship in May 1873. It has an Advent message for us. Those who planned a Cathedral in the 1830s shortly after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, knew they were beginning a journey in hope. In fact, it took nearly 40 years for the building to be opened for use. It actually took until 1936 for the bills to be paid and the Cathedral finally to be dedicated. It is a symbol, of a people who laid foundations in hope for a new way of being church after the 18th century of persecution and despite the horrors of the Famine in the 1840s. We are invited to be an Advent people of courage and hope who are open God's outrageous dream for his church. Can we keeping wrestling with the question "What is it that you desire?". Can we journey with trust that God will answer our dream in his own wise ways? Can we learn to speak about the quiet joy of Advent as we await the Good News of Christmas? Without the questions of Advent, we risk walking past the stable at Bethlehem and not even noticing it.

+ Donal McKeown

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