Homily for First Sunday of Advent 2023

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

Theme: ‘Stay Awake!’ (Mark 13:37)

Introduction: Today, the Church launches a new liturgical year, with the season of Advent – four weeks of preparation for the celebration of a birth that changed the course of human history.  The Advent season is designed to help us appreciate more fully the significance of Christ’s first coming among us, and to make more room for him in our hearts now, as we await his second coming. This is beautifully expressed in the following Advent prayer  ‘Increase our longing for Christ our Saviour and give us the strength to grow in love, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence and welcoming the light of his truth.’ Advent is a time to be reborn, to wake up from our slumber, and embrace the dawn of a new day.

Three times in today’s gospel reading from Mark, Jesus urges his disciples to ‘stay awake‘ (Mk 13:33,35,37).  Staying awake means being alert, and paying attention to the presence and action of God in the world around us, thus allowing our hearts to come alive with wonder. 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.’  In the words of the English poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins: ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God‘.  The fingerprints of God are all around us, but we must open our eyes and look. The Welsh poet, William Davies challenges to be still and notice the beauty that is all around 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).

Advent is 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 the divine, or the warmth of the Sun as it kisses a new day into being, or the changing colours of an autumnal landscape.   Let us, then, turn to the simple things, the things we take for-granted, the things that, in the words of the American poet, Edward Estlin Cummings, ‘I cannot touch because they are too near.’  

It is the quality of our experiences that enrich us, not the quantity.  We are easily seduced by the myth that the more we experience, and the more we have, the happier we will be. The world of Advertising feeds on and nurtures that myth. But it is never enough, as the words of the hit song from the 2017 movie, The Greatest Showman, highlight:

All the shine of a thousand spotlights
All the stars we steal from the night sky
Will never be enough
Never be enough
Towers of gold are still too little
These hands could hold the world but it’ll
Never be enough
Never be enough

It is precisely this insatiable desire for more that kills wonder. It deadens 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 ‘high sorrowful and cloyed’ (Keats). Letting go of the desire for more is the key to letting wonder in. It is when we resist this destructive desire of the ego, that we awaken to the inner beauty in things and in people. 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 hardly ever noticed before, like the changing colours of the sky, 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 being constantly bombarded with a thousand and one impressions.  Through the media, especially TV, computers and mobile phones, we are pummeled by information and images hitting us from every part of the world. Wonder had been sucked from our hearts. In the words of the Monaghan poet, Patrick Kavanagh, ‘Through a chink too wide there come in no wonder.  We may even get to the stage where we do not 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 from our slumber and alive to God’s presence all around us.

So we pray, in words borrowed from today’s first reading: ‘Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay. You are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. You are not yet finished with us. Remold us and make us new again. Amen  (cf. Is 64:8).

Fr Michael McCabe SMA

To listen to an alternative Homily for this Sunday, from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below. 

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