Sunday, 30 November 2008

1st Sunday of Advent Year B

Some people live for the future. If only I had this, if only I were this, if only. When people live for the future, they sometimes fail to live. It is almost as if they have a phantom that chases them towards the “perfect future”. They are anxious about the shape that their future will take that they forget that there is a present. If you ever had this feeling that where you are, you have to be somewhere else, that’s close to living in the future.

Some people live for the present. You might think that this is better than living in the future which is not living at all. The truth is some people live for the present in such a way that they can’t see beyond the present. You meet this type of people in the Jerry Springer Show. The reason why it is not available in this country may be due to its lack of taste. The point is people in the show are so driven to achieve that 15-minute fame that they are reduced to doing whatever it takes even at the price of demeaning themselves. It’s not really about the money because money may be an incentive. The underlying sad assumption behind the Jerry Springer Show is that there are no consequences for our present actions. This is the meaning of living in the present without a care for the future.

To live meaningful lives, we cannot live solely for the future nor can we exist exclusively for the present. We need to be in touch with reality, that is, to live in the present because our future is dependent on it. To do so would require us to stay awake. We remain alert to the present because our future is determined by how we respond to it. This is where the Gospel comes in. Three times we hear Christ urging His disciples to stay awake. For us the beginning of the Liturgical Year is an appropriate time for us to heed Christ’s call to stay awake and be vigilant. Thus, Advent is marked by self-introspection, self-examination or self-reflexion. It is a proper posture to take to await the coming of the Master in the Gospel.

The first reading is a good example of self-introspection. Isaiah recalls God’s past goodness and candidly acknowledges the ingratitude and sinfulness of his people. And he entreats God to come and save His people and that is exactly the response of the Psalm: God of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.

The liturgy we celebrate bears this spirit of self-introspection. The decoration is subdued and the colour is purple. Purple signifies our penitence as it expresses and acknowledges our sorrow for sins. In a parish not too far from here, the Parish Priest asks his people not to sing Christmas carols and not to put up the Christmas tree before Christmas. Let me clarify that “O Come Divine Messiah” is not a Christmas carol simply because its lyrics express our waiting and our preparing. And the reason we do not sing carols is the same as why we do not sing “Jesus Christ is Risen Today” during Lent. It is like before Christ comes, we already cut His birthday cake.

But, people have difficulty in understanding this. It is not difficult to see why. For some countries, Christmas carols can be heard as early as September. That is a culturally embedded practice. Here, as soon as Deepavali was over, the shopping complexes would begin tripping over themselves trying to outdo each other on which had the better decoration. It is a commercial consideration. For the parish, it is a matter of convenience. We put up the Christmas decorations early because volunteers will not have the time to put them up on Christmas day itself.

Whatever the reason, it is useful to know why the Parish Priest asks his parishioners to delay their Christmas merry-making because Advent’s penitential spirit embraces the tension of the present and the future, the tension of vigilance. We anticipate Christ’s coming by looking at our lives and seeing how prepared we are for Him. Getting caught up with the merry-making, the Christmas decorations up and the Christmas carols may short-cut the preparation and anticipation.

A reason why we tend to jump into “Christmas” is because it is not easy to live this self-introspection. It requires that we look at our habits honestly. Over these months what sort of good habits have we acquired? Conversely, what sort of bad habits have crept into our lives? Good habits require a lot of effort and a generous dose of discipline to cultivate. It takes energy because it presupposes that we remain vigilant and alert. Bad habits, on the other hand, have the tendency of creeping in insidiously as we let down our guard. When it comes to excuses, we are rather liberal. You notice this when we eat. When I tell people that I am putting on weight, the usual response is “Never mind. It’s not every day. It’s only once in a while that you’re enjoying this”. That’s how we acquire bad habits.

Christmas is coming. But before we get there, there is work to be done. It may consist of getting your house physically ready, preparing the home to welcome family and friends. But, Advent begins with the spiritual call to stay awake. Let our preparation begin with a deeper look at how we want to be present to Jesus and how we want Jesus to be present to us. It is time for reflexion, for confession and it is time to change what needs to be changed.

The Filipinos have a traditional practice called Simbang Gabi. It is their pre-dawn Mass that is celebrated between midnight and morning for 9 consecutive days before Christmas. Some people take that as a personal challenge to get up for a 2 am Mass for 9 consecutive days. But, we want more than taking what we do as a “personal challenge”. We want a heart renewed and ready for Christ. Otherwise, a personal challenge may remain an external habit without a corresponding conversion of heart.

We may not have the Simbang Gabi but there are ways to renew our hearts as we prepare for the coming of the Lord: prayer, fasting and remembering the poor are three good spiritual exercises not just restricted to Lent. When we are prepared spiritually, the grace of Christmas will be felt. Otherwise, when all the celebrations are over, we’ll be left with an empty feeling. So, stay awake and prepare for the coming of the Lord.