First Sunday of Advent

gg

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. So stay away, because you do not know the day your master is coming, You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’                      (Matthew 24: 37-44)

Well, that escalated quickly. If you’re like me, Advent is the time when you can finally allow yourself to start thinking about Christmas. During this time, the Christian world prepares to recall and celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ birth. So why does the Church hit us with a Gospel about the end times at the very beginning of Advent?

Picture the scene: a family gathers around the tree on Christmas morning, the younger siblings eager to tear open the wrapping paper that surrounds their presents, a dad hoping for a new pair of slippers and a mum….wait, where’s mum? Dad gets up and goes back into the bedroom where mum is sleeping soundly. He gives her a nudge. “Are you not getting up? The kids are waiting.” Mum stretches, looks at the clock and wearily replies, “What? Waiting for what? It’s 6.30am on a Sunday. Why is everyone awake?” Suddenly it dawns on her as she looks at the date on the bedside clock. 25th December 2016. “Wait!? It’s Christmas? I’m not ready! I didn’t get round to buying presents, never mind a turkey. Why did no one warn me!?”

An unlikely story. Many of us will spend weeks, or even months preparing for Christmas Day, and it is easy because we know exactly when it will be. We work better with deadlines than without. We know the deadline for shopping online, the deadline for sending Christmas cards, the deadline for ordering the turkey. We know these things must be done by a certain date. If Christmas could be celebrated on any day of the year, a day of our choosing, would our preparations be as thorough? Or perhaps we would never actually get around to celebrating it at all.

And that is what makes our Gospel reading today even more difficult for us. Jesus tells us that He will come again at an hour we won’t expect. So how can we possibly prepare? There may be a sense of apathy, a self-assuredness that the hour He speaks of won’t come in our time. We don’t need to worry now. But if Jesus came tomorrow, how prepared would we be? Would we be ready to welcome Him? Or would we exclaim, “Why did no one warn me!?”?

In a sense, Advent can feel like a kind of limbo. On the one hand, we have the annual cycle of the Church’s year, and during this time we prepare each to recall Christ’s birth. On the other hand, we look forward, to a time not known to us, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead (an acknowledgement we make each Sunday when reciting the Creed). We are continually reminded that Christ will come again, that we will be judged, and yet we often fail to prepare ourselves for this reality. So what can we do when we are constantly looking back to Christ’s time on earth and looking forward to His coming again?

The answer is given to us in the Gospel. We ‘stand ready’. We make our present position a stance of readiness. Each day we prepare ourselves to live as a disciple of God. Advent is a real gift in this sense. For the next four weeks, we have the opportunity to really focus on our place in God’s creation. To focus on what God has given to us, how He communicates Himself to us, and how we respond to that communication. Perhaps we can spend extra time in prayer during Advent. Many churches have Eucharistic Adoration nowadays – why not resolve to spend time with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as often as possible? Perhaps, like me, you might want to spend more time reflecting on God’s Word, because it is in His Word that God reveals His plan for us. If you have children, take the time to make an Advent wreath with them and spend a few minutes together in prayer each day. Find a way of making your heart a home for Christ this year, and you will go a fair way in preparing yourself for when He comes again.

 

 

Why Do I Need To know That?

The internet is a strange place. It’s a place with no end. For every piece of information that is consumed, there are many more being created. Some of it is great: I’m currently studying a Law degree, and a lot of the course resources are online. There is a wealth of knowledge out there and some people are using their talents well. But how do we distinguish between what is  good content and what is not? Usually, the line is quite obvious, but a lot of time time we have no way of telling whether someone’s story is true or not. Of course, we could take the time to do our own research, but with so many other pieces of information being thrown in front of our eyes every second, who has the time for research?!

There is a real issue regarding what people think is appropriate to share with others. Often, they cannot differentiate between something worthwhile sharing, and information that is of little value to the rest of us, or even still that is distasteful and harmful. On Tuesday they may share something insightful about the refugee crisis, and on Wednesday they’ll post 26 photographs of their breakfast. Readers are constantly having to filter the information we retain.

The problem has spilled over to more traditional forms of information sharing. For example, I have an acquaintance (who, for their own sake shall remain anonymous) who often buys The Daily Mail. A day or two ago, I noticed the second story on the front page was about a GP who was taken to court for spanking her ‘lover’. Here’s a link to the online version: 50 Shades of Grey and a spanking that left tycoon dialling 999 and his GP lover in court after she left him covered in dozens of bleeding welts Read past the headline and you will note that the lady in question is no longer a GP (mentioning that fact in the headline would have reduced the scandal level, so we’ll not mention it until later), and she was acquitted of any wrongdoing. So what have I learned? That a man and woman I had never heard of, and am likely never to hear of again, enjoyed what some would call an adventurous sex life. At the time of writing, the online article has been shared 669 times, and 127 comments have been left. Include those who haven’t shared or commented, and the readership of the Daily Mail in hardcopy form, and you have thousands of people walking around the UK in the knowledge that these two people shared a sexual fetish.

The same day, I had a catch-up with another friend whom I hadn’t seen in a few months. There was a lot that had happened in our lives during that time that the other wasn’t aware of. And all I could think about was the fact that I had such intimate knowledge of two absolute strangers, but no clue what my friend had been up to for the past 9 weeks. It made me realise that I need to become a better curator of information. The media world and the internet world will always provide us with more information than we can handle. It’s up to us to choose how much of it we let in. More effort should be spent with our flesh and blood friends. Okay, it does actually require the effort any active engagement should, rather than being a passive receiver of the constant stream of information on a screen. But would I rather know how my friend is or how some millionaire’s sex life has panned out? The internet has made the world a smaller place. We can learn so much about other cultures and about other individuals. We can meet our future husband or wife online. But unless we become effective curators, it can make our own lives very small. We end up knowing too much about people we have never met, and not enough about those closest to us.

“Take what works and leave the rest,” is a phrase I hear quite a bit these days. And maybe that’s how we should treat the internet. A lot of it works well: online shopping is great for people like me who live in a rural location. Social media is good for keeping in contact with loved ones who are geographically distant. We can learn a great many things through the internet. Make use of it. But leave the rest. Leave what is toxic, leave what is unnecessary. And at times, just leave it altogether. Get up, go outside and meet a friend. Laugh with someone instead of laughing in your own head at a screen. When we are old and grey, we won’t marvel at all the great times we spent in our rooms scrolling through pages on the internet, but rather the real-life occasions we shared with good friends. And on that note….it’s a beautiful day today, I’m going out now to enjoy it.

A Lesson In Patience

Sundays are a day of ritual. For my brother and me, Sundays will always include brunch at a local cafe. We have our favourite table, our orders tweaked slightly from the official menu, and the staff know us well. This Sunday past however, our routine was slightly off and we ended up going about 45 minutes later than usual. That 45 minutes made a huge difference. There were no seats and it would be at least another 15 minutes until we would get one. I decided I couldn’t wait. As we walked outside I could feel the muscles in my shoulders and neck tighten, and expressions of anger began to flow from my lips – “We should be able to reserve a seat. Who are those other people? Do they go there every week? How dare they!” I was visibly angry and tense, much to my brother’s amusement.

Why? Why couldn’t I wait? Why did I get so annoyed? I can’t help but wonder if it’s because I’ve become so used to instant gratification. If I want something I can’t buy locally, I can go on Amazon and have it delivered to my door the next day. If I want to find out the population of China, I’ll have the information on my phone and in my hands 10 seconds later. It seems like everything can be bought, everything can be personalised to suit my needs, everything can be obtained in an instant. The more we get, the more we want, and the more dissatisfied we become with what we have. Albert Camus portrayed powerfully this phenomenon in the character of the emperor Caligula, who becomes such a malcontent despite all that he has, that he goes out and tries to capture the moon: “The world as it is is unbearable. That’s why I need the moon, or happiness, or immortality, or something…”

These unrealistic desires that are caused by having too much all at once, can lead us to put unrealistic expectations on other people. I expected the owners of the cafe to keep ‘my’ table on Sunday, and for all the other customers to be aware that I would require a seat at an unspecified time. We lose patience with strangers and friends alike because they do not live up to our high expectations of reality. In preparation for this blog post, I did a few searches on what annoys people most, and I noticed that many of the annoyances were due to impatience. For example, The Independent’s “These Are The 50 Most Annoying Things About Modern Life,” had amongst the top-ranked irritations the following: computers freezing, slow WiFi, getting stuck in traffic, public transport delays, and waiting on the phone for doctors.  Half of the top 10 were issues of impatience.

There is something to be said for rituals of the religious type. Attending church, praying and meditating are all excellent means of setting aside feelings of impatience. They slow us down and create a separation between our true selves and our  unfulfilling and unhelpful desires for more. They, in theory, should help us practise patience. When, for example, St. Josemaria Escriva received a complaint that Mass was too long, he replied: “You say the Mass is too long, I say your love is too short.”

There is, therefore, one antidote to impatience – Love. The next time the you feel the person in front of you at the check-out is taking too long to pack their bags, don’t tweet about it. Don’t get angry because you get home 1 minute later than you would have liked. That minute is only wasted if you choose not to love. It is only wasted if you choose to hold onto your negative feelings. Give the person a smile instead. Maybe they’ve had a rough day. Or offer to help them. Don’t ruin that extra minute, and beyond, by holding onto a trivial annoyance. Practise patience with others, and with yourself. If you have to wait 15 minutes for a seat, wait. Or, hold onto the annoyance, and go home hungry and angry as I did.