Saturday, November 25, 2006

Advent 1: Are we awake?

Once upon a time there was an exceedingly ancient monk, who spent his days in prayer and silence.  Because he never had a bad word to say about anybody, and every time you came across him in the cloister his whole face screwed up in a great big smile, he was loved and revered by the whole monastery.  One day, a very junior monk came to him seeking inspiration.  ‘Father’, he said – ‘on account of all these years of meditation and fasting, getting up at 4.00 am, keeping silence and doing penance – it is said that you have achieved enlightenment and great holiness.  Can you share some wisdom with me?’  The old monk burst out laughing and said ‘Holiness?  Wisdom? – is that what they teach you young monks?  Mostly it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  Listen, I’ll tell you a secret – if I get up at 4.00 am it’s only because my rheumatism won’t let me sleep – if I haven’t got a bad word to say about anybody it’s probably because I’ve forgotten their names - every time I come across one of you young monks in the cloister I have to squint just to recognise you because I’ve lost my glasses.  Most of the time it’s as much as I can do to get through the day with any sort of grace.  I don’t know about holiness!’  Well, the young month persisted – ‘So why do you stay here?  Haven’t you learned anything in all your years of prayer and silence?’  ‘I have indeed’, the old man told him – ‘I’ve learned how important it is to stay awake.  You never know when your best-laid plans are going to get interrupted.  Didn’t you know - God loves to give you a jolt – the best way I’ve found to live my life is as though I’m right in the middle of falling off a horse.’

No time left to make plans – no time left for recriminations or learning from past mistakes or changing your mind!  No time left for anything except going with the flow.  Everything depends on how ready you’ve been, how much attention you’ve been paying to what’s really important.  Welcome to Advent – the short, sharp wake-up call at the very beginning of the Christian year when God dares us to believe that the promises we’ve half stopped believing in are really coming true.  The first word we hear comes from Jeremiah, that patron prophet of grumpy old men – some day, he says – some day women and men are going to wake up to the fact that the way things are is not the way they are meant to be, the day is coming when what human beings do to each other is going to be judged by the standards of truthfulness and justice, the day is coming when the way we live our lives is going to be judged against the suffering of children in Sudan and Lebanon.  Some day God is going to break right in on top of the way you live your life, and whatever you’re doing right now is going to get turned upside down.

Advent is more than just the time of waiting – we all know how to wait – Advent is the jolt we get when God dares us to believe again that history is going somewhere, that the world as we know it does get called to account against the justice and the holiness of God.  Scary stuff, this passage from Luke’s Gospel, wars and terror, famines and plagues and tsunamis and confusion – a description so dreadful that every generation ever since it was written has seen in it a prophecy of their own age - and this, Luke tells us, is what we’ve all been waiting for – this is a good thing – stand up straight, he says, because this is the time of promises fulfilled, of justice for those who since the beginning of history have been denied justice.  Advent begins, as it always does, with a reminder not of the beginning but of the end of all things.  Forget the scaremongers, forget that hateful perversion of Christianity that preaches the final coming of Christ as a time of paranoia and mass destruction – but forget, also, the insipid middle-class Christianity that preaches the cuddly and cute version of Christmas – this Advent get ready for a bumpy ride because the Christ child that gets born at the end of the donkey-ride is just the first instalment of the sobering reality that God is with us.  Advent is about the assertion – against all the evidence of human history – in spite of the appalling facts of world hunger and the global epidemic of AIDS, in spite of petrol-sniffing in Alice Springs and car-bombings in Baghdad – that human existence has dignity and grace and purpose because it belongs to God.  Advent is about staking our lives on the ridiculous-sounding idea that human life is God-shaped because God inhabits us. 

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound unrealistic to affirm, in spite of all the dreadful technology of war and oppression, in spite of all our cunning and greed, that God is going to get the last word?  It is unrealistic.  It’s not the way the world has ever worked.  It takes every ounce of my faith to believe it.  In fact, I think that the unrealistic-ness of Advent faith might actually be part of what’s meant when you hear people say that the Church isn’t relevant to modern life.  We are indeed living in cloud-cuckoo land.  With the fairies at the bottom of the garden.  Advent faith involves a view of the world that is absolutely, gloriously, life-affirmingly out of step with the dominant culture of the society we live in, the culture of Big Brother and Survivor that values competitiveness and consumption over compassion and self-sacrifice. 

Advent faith calls us to live in the in-between times, to live as though God’s promises have already come true, with integrity, with generosity, and above all, with expectation.  Luke tells us to be on our guard against drunkenness – something to bear in mind this festive season – it means don’t get distracted by the tinsel and the fake Santas – by the agendas and the real estate market and the price of bananas – it means don’t get sucked in by the shopping and the decorating and all the trappings of the season’s self-centred celebration that distract us from the most important thing – the priorities of God that we see at the heart of the Incarnation, the priority of human dignity, the priority of living with compassion, of justice and generosity and self-giving.  Between the birth at Bethlehem and the Final Coming of Christ that draws all of history into the embrace of God, Advent reminds us that God is incarnate, over and over, in every one of us.  That God is incarnated in how we live.

At the very beginning of Advent, at the beginning of a new year of promise and uncertainty, the Gospel reminds us of the traps we need to watch out for.  The trap is that we leave it too late to care about the things that God cares about.  The trap is that God finds us spending our time and our passion on what is superficial or self-centred, that we’ve left it too late and that when God bursts in on us – as God surely does – we’re not ready.  The story is told of Abraham Lincoln, who on being urged by advisors to take a particular course of action was told, ‘You know God is on our side’.  Lincoln didn’t like that idea, and he answered, ‘Sir, my greatest concern is not whether God is on my side, my greatest concern is that we should be found at the end to have been on God’s side’.

The other day I was forcefully reminded that we live in a country of great material wealth but moral poverty - when the pop star Bono gently lectured us during the G20 conference on the fact that although Australia has signed up already to the commitment to spend 0.7% of our gross national product on overseas aid, our actual contribution is less than half of that.  Australia, he pointed out, comes in 19th out of the 20 OECD countries on our commitment to the world’s poor.  Our government’s dismissive response is that it’s trade, not aid, that best helps developing countries, but Bono is pointing to communities living in the shadow of AIDS and famine, children in the 21st century continuing to die of hunger and easily preventable diseases.  The sort of poverty that, historically, has come about as the consequence of the developed world’s push for resources and power.  God is not on the side of free markets, God is on the side of compassion.

At the beginning of Advent we’re rudely jolted awake.  ‘You know’, God tells us, ‘I’m coming ready or not.  I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.  Right when you least expect it.

‘Are you ready?’