St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, John the Baptist does not just gather people in the desert to sit and wait for the Redeemer. He gives advice to the people, the tax collectors and the soldiers about practical things that they could do. The way will be prepared for the Lord, not merely by praying in the desert but by acting justly, sharing with the needy, being content with where they find themselves. Waiting for the Lord is an activity. Thus, the synodal way of being church is not just about having nice conversations, generating grand ideas and then going home. Participation is not merely about letting everyone be heard and then disappointing everybody because not all their suggestions were put into practice. Participation means asking together where God is calling us - personally and together - to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom. John the Baptist's advice is directed to what each individual can do in their way of life. People are asked to do their bit to prepare for the Lord, not merely condemn others for not doing their bit. Thus, participation in discerning the Lord's way forward is directed, not at theoretical ideas that somebody wants to promote, but at changing hearts and changing lives with practical actions. That is what great saints did. They got their hands dirty with those whose lives were most messed up. There is little value in wanting more people to come back to church if, when we gather, we do not deliver blessings for those who are weighed down by their past and their present. Jesus was eminently practical. He would expect his followers to be the same.
Secondly, joy is not just a theme for today's Mass. St Paul tells the Philippians that they should always be happy in the Lord. There is always a temptation for believers to let condemnation and woe dominate. But long faces merely reflect the secular way of looking at life where we tell our young people to be afraid of strangers, of the future, of commitment. I get loads of messages and YouTube clips foretelling cosmic events, the global takeover by evil forces, hordes of immigrants, witches etc. These all seem to come from gloomy hearts that want us all to be afraid. This is true in every age, and it is no surprise that the most common biblical phrase is "Do not be afraid". As someone said, "if you have the love of God in your heart, don't forget to tell your face about it." It is not just today that we should leave the Church with a smile on our face. Excessively earnest, long-faced Christian are not good advertisements for the love of Christ. In the face the many problems that challenge the world, part of our vocation is to have the peace that Christ gives us, not the fear and gloom that our secular culture seems to promote.
Thirdly, belonging is part of believing. Participation does not merely mean training a few lay people to pick up part of the mission. That easily leads to the clericalization of a few non-clerics to replicate an old way of being church. A participative church involves promoting the call to holiness of each person. It means developing a wide range of ministries in every parish and diocese where the different gifts of the Spirit in everybody complement one another. We can learn much from history. There, little groups of enthusiastic revolutionaries often fought allegedly to seize power on behalf of what they called 'the people'. But as soon as they obtained power, only they knew what was right for the masses and they replicated the oppression that they claimed to oppose. It would be a shame if participation and change in church simply meant that we repeated the mistakes of history and concentrated power in the hands of a different few. Jesus wanted to empower people to be led together by the Holy Spirit. He wanted to involve people not merely to patronise them. But he wanted to help them see beyond their personal agendas and glimpse together the divine dream. All of this will mean finding ways of involving a range of voices, not so that they can assert their influence but so that - in angry as well as passionate voces - we can be attentive to something of what the Holy Spirit is saying to the churches. The early Christian believers had to tackle hard questions together. The Irish missionaries like Columba had to take courageous and costly decisions, leading by example and not merely by shouting louder than somebody else. They were Christ's servants, not promoters of their own superior wisdom. Participation in discernment means that the seed of our own pride has to die before it can bear fruit to the glory of God.
As John the Baptist indicated to his listeners, these are exciting times, not times of fear. John did not know where the Christ was in the midst of the people. But he knew he was there, waiting and already at work. Our Advent identity invites us to journey in hope and with a joyful lightness in our step. It will mean moving beyond any temptation merely to consume nice religious products online. Prayer at home is essential. However, any privatisation of faith damages the important witness of faith communities of diverse people. The Christian witness unites us in the one Body of Christ despite our diversity. Advent is a call to speak into in a fragmenting society where identity politics can reduce us to echo chambers for frightened like-minded conformists. Jesus wants to create participative diverse communities and not reduce us to sectarian and self-righteous isolationists, led more by fear and anger than by joy. As we face the uncertain future, Jesus invites us to journey in joy for God is at work in our midst – if we only have the humility and patience to wait for his coming and allow ourselves to be surprised as we discover where he is working unseen in our midst.
+ Donal McKeown