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Advent 2013 - First Sunday

Sunday, December 01, 2013

“Wow! Bit of a TARDIS you've got here here, pal!” So exclaimed one recent visitor to our church in Oxford. It’s easy to think of Blackfriars as a TARDIS, I suppose: the seemingly innocuous façade conceals a community of brothers busying themselves with ‘higher things’ in the twin cavernous lungs of library and chapel. Sometimes friends speak as if, by joining the Religious life, I’ve stepped out of the world into a privileged spiritual dimension, a bubble impenetrable by the distractions of the world with its stories of love and heartbreak, economic vicissitudes and noisy distractions.

There is truth in all this: religious communities have historically been seen as ‘colonies of heaven’, little corners of the world that men and women—with the help of God—conquer as places of peace and harmony, gathering round Jesus and thus make present the kingdom of God, imaging the love shared between the three divine persons in the life of the Trinity. But in this season of Advent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate not only the entry of God into world history, but God’s actual assumption of human history—taking the time and space of this world to himself in the person of Christ. The Kingdom of God isn’t primarily about escaping the world and its worldliness, but about bringing the world to its fulfilment: our religious communities do not simply set themselves aside from the world, but rather establish the world authentically within themselves (and for this reason, they exclude the inauthentic things of the world, the sinful distortions that make the world less truly itself).

We see this tension between the ordinariness of human ‘stuff’ and the extraordinariness of God’s action beautifully in today’s readings: in Isaiah the Kingdom of God is presented as involving peace between nations; in Romans, St Paul presents the kingdom as closer at hand even than when Christ walked amongst us (this despite the sinful confusions that he lists); in St. Matthew’s gospel, the consummation of the Kingdom comes when we’re doing the ordinary things of tending to our fields or grinding at the millstone (read: writing our essays, balancing our books, finishing another shift at the factory). Proclamation of the Kingdom isn’t about loading more people onto a TARDIS to escape the world, but about transfiguring the world in Christ, about helping our brothers and sisters find the joy that comes from discovering the birth of Jesus as the personal meaning of our lives.

Since his election in March, Pope Francis has been busy reminding us of this. Are we shepherds or hairdressers, he asks: do we go out after the ninety-nine lost sheep to help them see the ways in which Christ is already present to them, or do we stay with the single faithful sheep, washing its hair, combing it, making it look beautiful, giving it a nice ‘perm’? True, the ninety-nine sheep might bring some of the mud of the world in with them when they come, but God’s grace can cope with that. In sending us out to the fringes of society, the Holy Father isn’t just trying to reverse falling Mass attendance, but hoping to share the Good News that actually sets our world free, the news which liberates. “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” (Evangelii Gaudium, §8)

Going back to our visitor: his visit was part of the Night Fever event that the students of the Oxford University Catholic Chaplaincy hosted in our church earlier in term. That night, students took to the streets and invited people to come and light a candle before the Blessed Sacrament. As our visitors came into the church, they brought with them—quite literally—the baggage of their lives: supermarket shopping, bags of library books, crates of beer, those small purses that ladies take to balls. All of these were laid down before the Lord present on the altar, and then picked back up and carried afresh after their owners had prayed to the living God and encountered his power. It seems that there’s something of Advent about that: God coming amidst the ‘stuff’ of our lives, of nothing seeming to change on the surface, but actually, to those of us who pause to see it, everything changes, and everything changes radically.

Oliver James Keenan OP


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