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Homily - First Sunday in Advent - Bishop McKeown

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Sunday, 28 November 2021

There is one image that I like when it comes to explaining the various seasons of the Church's year. Just like a globe of the world, you cannot see all of it at once, so, too, we need time to look at the specific elements in the story that we tell about God and the human race. Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost all have their emphases. And if we fail to savour the particular message of the Advent season, we miss part of the divine masterpiece that is our creation and salvation. So, what might the Advent season say to us this year?

Firstly, Advent is a time for yearning. And that is not merely a religious message. The world is full of people yearning for wholeness or love, for healing or good news, for peace of mind or a sense of self-worth. Unless we acknowledge what it is we really hunger for, we risk being deluded that Black Friday deals are the best that human beings can hope for. And Christian yearning is not merely daydreaming and becoming lost in a fantasy world. Nor is it the firm conviction that, if only my pet hobby horse were to be centre stage, things would be so much better. Our faith journey believes that God's grace can do miracles, that forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, even in the apparently most intractable situations. Thus, the Advent figures like Isaiah, John the Baptist tells us that God's dream for the world is so much bigger than our own limited and often blinkered hopes. Mary and Joseph could never have imagined the events of Bethlehem and Calvary, of Easter and Pentecost. But the foolishness of God, St Paul tells us, is so much wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25). People of faith are dreamers and visionaries. Christ wants us to be open to what lies ahead and never be stuck in a frightened, angry regret for what is being left behind. Faith means believing that we do not need to know what lies ahead - but trusting that God is in charge. Can we rediscover that element of yearning and dreaming for wholeness which is one indispensable part of our faith? That was part of the path to sanctity for so many great saints and reformers. No wonder they were often seen as fools.

Secondly, moving to something still better means leaving something behind. The Bible uses the image of the desert. On the Exodus, the Israelites had to leave behind the poor security that came from being slaves who were guaranteed food. They constantly complained that their wanderings in the desert were a waste of time. It was only when they arrived in the Promised Land that they could look back with gratitude rather than in anger. They were being tested to see if they could trust God and not just their own limited horizons. There is always the temptation in Church to seek security in our strong structures and personal certainties, rather than in letting go and letting God be in charge. Christian communities are called by Jesus to walk forward in hope, not weighed down by soothing but angry nostalgia. We pray that God's will should be done, not our limited hopes realised.

The current situation of the Church calls for Advent hearts. We will hear John the Baptist speaking of God being revealed in the desert, not in the Temple in Jerusalem. John is in continuity with what has gone before him – because he proclaims that Jesus is fulfilling the Old Testament promises. But John is also making a dangerous break with the past in that he points beyond the limited religious assumptions of his day. By his lifestyle he points beyond himself. His message builds on the past but is not restricted by it. The Church has always been renewed by those who lifestyles challenged cosy religious assumptions. Renewal and growth will come from the fringes. Prayerful people will make space for that prophetic growth, whatever the cost. Frightened hearts, who are afraid of divine renovation, will shy away from what they cannot control.

Thirdly, the current emphasis on synodality is an invitation to develop so that we have permanent Advent hearts. In the desert, John the Baptist calls people to conversion in preparation for the coming of the Saviour. Earlier this month, Pope Francis said The Church today is undergoing a process of conversion that begins "from below, as an expression of the active participation of the People of God in the journey of personal and community conversion"[1]He was speaking specifically about the area of safeguarding children. But it applies to all that we do are as Church. If we currently feel that we are in a desert, give thanks that we find ourselves there - for that is a place where conversion can more easily take place. An Advent people are prepared to journey in search of integrity, allowing the Lord to work on us. St Paul, writing to his listeners in Thessalonica, prayed that the Lord would be generous in increasing your love and make you love one another and the whole human race as much as we love you. And may he so confirm your hearts in holiness. That is the prayer of an Advent people – and the spirit in which the synodal journey can take place. Unless love and holiness are hallmarks of this process in Ireland, it is a human creation that will block God from leading us anywhere.

I invite you to join in this Advent journey which is just part of the Church's year. But an Advent heart is also a permanent element in our identity. The liturgical year will continue to spin from season to season, and the desert imagery may not be immediately visible. But unless we know that it is an integral part of the divine plan, we risk being formed by other agendas or feeling unsure which loud voice we should follow. The real word of God is a voice crying, prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. In the midst of all the other pre-Christmas noise, find time to be in touch with the yearnings that lie deep in your heart, to renew your determination to cross the desert because you trust the Lord who leads, and to walk with others that together we might reach the Promised Land that is not of our making. And there we can stand with confidence before the Son of Man.

+ Donal McKeown


Prayer for the Synod

We stand before You, Holy Spirit,

as we gather together in Your name.

With You alone to guide us,

make Yourself at home in our hearts;

Teach us the way we must go

and how we are to pursue it.

We are weak and sinful;

do not let us promote disorder.

Do not let ignorance lead us down the wrong path

nor partiality influence our actions.

Let us find in You our unity

so that we may journey together to eternal life

and not stray from the way of truth

and what is right.

All this we ask of You,

who are at work in every place and time,

in the communion of the Father and the Son,

forever and ever. Amen


[1] Message of the Holy Father on the occasion of the conference "Promoting child safeguarding in the time of Covid-19 and beyond" [Rome, 4 November 2021] (21 October 2021) | Francis (vatican.va)


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Diocesan Offices
St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302

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