Diocese of Derry


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Homily - First Sunday of Advent - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 29 November 2020 

Last Sunday we celebrated the end of our story when Christ will be king of all things at the end of time, the completion of God's work. Today we begin our story all over again. Advent is a time when we celebrate the reality of faith in a time of incompleteness, waiting for the fulfilment of the promise. And the figures of Isaiah, John the Baptist and Mary will be our companions as bearers of hope in a time of waiting.

The first thing that strikes me is that the desert experience is not a bad place in which to find ourselves. The cultural emphasis on consumption is that things are awful if I cannot have or take what I want here and now. Individualism has generated great creativity. But a society believing that 'it is all about me' falls apart as it becomes increasingly narcissistic and self-absorbed. This pandemic desert is terrible for many people. But we miss an important point if we fail to let it critique how we have got used to being in society and in church.

For people of faith, this lockdown is actually a chance to live the yearning for God in a new way. When the Israelites came to the Promised Land and built the Temple in Jerusalem, there were those wise prophetic voices who said that the painful 40 years of Exodus through the desert without a Temple were actually rich and blessed times. Thus, I worry about those church voices who shout against church closures on the grounds that we should never be denied anything. That is a very modern me-centred approach, portraying ourselves as poor victims of the evil forces. Yes, church closures and other aspects of lockdown are most unwelcome. But people of faith will be able to see closed doors and deprivation as a time of grace and not merely an excuse for self-righteous rage. A self-absorbed church, looking back to a supposed Golden Age where Church was politically powerful, miss the point of being a Pilgrim People. In a difficult time, there is the temptation to seek refuge in a delusional form of a super-certain faith that condemns those who are not part of our group. The desert faith walks in trust, not fearing uncertainty but trusting that God by calling you has joined you to his Son, Jesus Christ; and God is faithful. There is no room for anger, fear or scorn in an Advent heart.

Secondly, Isaiah talks about God as the potter and us as the clay. One recent author said that, for Church, this is not a time of interruption but of disruption. Through this time of challenge, God is remaking his Church and how we carry out the divine mission of making disciples of all nations. That has been the pattern down through the centuries. A certain way of being church is great for its time. God's faithfulness ensures that, as one way of being church crumbles, another is born. God is not limited by our blinkered hearts. In the last decades of change, we have been tempted to focus on keeping up the numbers of active churchgoers. But the result has been that we have often looked like a club which exists to meet the needs of its members rather than preparing its members to make Jesus known and loved. In the commercial world, a business with a poor business model will fail. If we look too much at maintaining a failed way of being church, we will end up an allegedly super-pure but unattractive angry holy huddle, or a frail structure that is receiving only palliative care and waiting for death. Thus, Jesus' call to 'stay awake' is not just a call to each individual so that we are prepared for the Lod whenever he comes. It is also a call to us as Church to be awake to where God is trying to remake us. Any remaking will be difficult. But the Church belongs to Christ the King and not to us. What makes us strong may well not be serving Christ's mission. Advent is a time for walking forward in truth, believing – in St Paul's words – that you will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.

Finally, Advent is a time to dream. Prayer, engagement with the scriptures and silent adoration can make space for God's dream to take root in our hearts. One of the features of the last months in this diocese has been the engagement of young people in the faith journey through on-line outreach. Our young people are plagued by so many voices that tempt them to devalue their own lives and to be frightened. Our prayer and sacramental life gives birth to hope, even in difficult times. For it is in times of crisis that hope is most needed. Young people will renew the church as they have done in every generation. They are motivated by the generous love and mercy of God and not by having guilt dumped on them. They are already made to feel guilty by secular society for not having ideologically correct ideas, clothes, body sizes and lifestyles. The rich teaching of Christ in His Church is meant to inspire them, as it has done to great young saints in every generation. Can we older people pray during Advent, not that our young people will do what we want them to, but that they can discover what God wants them to do and become. The saints offer us models of people who allowed God to lead them down strange roads. The saints often asked uncomfortable questions in their own days. But they were prepared to take risks that were inspired by God's dream for the world. Advent 2020 is a time to look at our own dream for the Church and the world, and see whether that is in harmony with Christ's vision as revealed in the scriptures and the Liturgy.

Because of the pandemic, this year we have an opportunity to celebrate Advent in a uniquely concrete way. In difficult times, Isaiah will call us to trust that a blessed future lies in store for the world. Such a hope is needed in a time of much gloom and despair. John the Baptist will call us – as he called his contemporaries - to repent of our blinkered secularised hearts so that we can recognise Jesus the Saviour when and wherever he comes. And the expectant Mary will tell us that God is already hidden but active in our midst, waiting to be born in our time in a place of God's choosing. If we see the celebration of Christmas as finishing on December 25th, rather than just beginning then, we will have missed the blessings of waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Can we pray that we will celebrate a rich and blessed Advent this year and become bearers of hope who are not frightened by emptiness of waiting?

+ Donal McKeown

Hollie, Peter, Oisin, Gemma, Zara and John open up to Bishop Donal and discuss the challenges as a young person expressing their faith in today's society. They discuss what they have learnt during this pandemic and ask what it has been like for Bishop Donal.  To view the discussion - click the play button below.

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Contact Info

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

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