1st Sunday of Advent 2020 – Year B

29 November 2020

Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1,3-8 
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:33-37

Today’s gospel reading admonishes us three times to ‘stay awake’. This means paying attention to the presence and action of God in our lives and in the world around us, and allowing our hearts to become alive with wonder.  The capacity for wonder is said to be the beginning of Philosophy; it is certainly a key element in our life of faith, and it is so easy to lose it.    The famous scientist, Albert Einstein, said once: ‘The one who can no longer pause to wonder and stand in awe is as good as dead.’

We should not be surprised then at how often the Advent readings call us to wake up and take notice of God’s loving presence around us and within us. As the poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins puts it, ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’. The fingerprints of God are all around us, but we have to open our eyes and look. The Welsh poet, William Davies reminds us: ‘What is life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare/no time to stand beneath the boughs, and stare as long as sheep or cows.’  This is what Jesus tells us, too:

Look at the birds in the sky…

Think of the flowers growing in the fields….

Not even Solomon in all his regalia was robed

like one of these (Mt 6: 26, 28, 30)

If Jesus had not taken time to notice the things around him the Gospels  might have given us a philosophical discourse on God’s providence but we would not have had parables, those marvellous stories which lead us to God through the filter of our senses and imagination. 

Advent is a time – a grace-filled, precious time – for us to try and recover our childhood sense of wonder at the ordinary miracles of life that surround us – basic elemental things, like the smile of a child, the most natural and spontaneous sacrament of God that I know, or the warmth of the Sun as it kisses a new day into being, or the changing colours an autumnal landscape.   Let us, then, turn to the simple things, the things we take for-granted, the things that, as the poet E.E. Cummings says, ‘I cannot touch because they are too near.’  

It is the quality of our experiences that enrich us, not the quantity.  We can easily be seduced by the myth that the more of life we experience the better.  Advertisements urge us to try everything and to leave no stone unturned.  More is better: this is the underlying philosophy of our materialistic world.  But it is precisely this attitude which kills wonder. If we take in too much quantity, we can easily deaden our capacity to appreciate the quality things in life, and we end up with hearts that are cold and indifferent.  If we try to taste too much too quickly, we become unable to really relish anything. Even the most beautiful things lose their wonder for us, and leave our hearts empty and frustrated.

Letting go of the desire to grab at things for ourselves is the key to letting wonder in. When we resist this destructive desire, we allow the inner beauty in things – and more especially in people – to speak to us. We become open to the mystery all around us and come to see things as we never saw them before. We will find ourselves enthralled by a myriad of little things we may have hardly ever noticed before, like the changing colours of the sky, or the sound the wind rustling through the trees, or the singing of the birds at dawn.  

We live in an age of inflation in more ways than one.  Our senses are daily bombarded with a thousand and one impressions.  Through the media, especially TV, computers and mobile phones, we are pummelled by information and images hitting us from every part of the world. Wonder had been sucked from our hearts. We find ourselves choked or paralysed by the effort to take in too much of the world too quickly: ‘Through a chink too wide there come in no wonder’ (Patrick Kavanagh).  We can even get to the stage where we are not to feel anything except confusion, hostility, boredom.  How could it be otherwise? Our senses were made for our hearts, not the other way round. We need to draw back from the forces launching themselves at our senses, and give our hearts time to cope, to focus, to filter and assimilate the multitude of impressions hitting us.  Advent is a time for such screening and focusing: taking in less, but learning to appreciate more, and waking up to the wonder of God’s loving presence in the creatures he has made. There is no better way to prepare our hearts to celebrate the birthday of Christ, who ‘comes to meet us with a January flower’ (Patrick Kavanagh). 

Fr Michael McCabe SMA

Click on the play button below to listen to an alternative homily from Fr Tom Casey SMA