As the season of Advent draws near I find it hard to begin to settle into it because of the pandemic we are all living through. “Things will be very different this year” is heard so often these days. Many are wondering if they will be able to see loved ones or will we all be in lockdown up to and after Christmas?
Yes, it will be different this year, but it is up to each one to find the beauty and the call of this advent time in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
The symbols, the powerful readings, the dark evenings, the haunting hymns are all there, calling us to pause, savour and reflect.
The lovely Advent wreath, with the smell of the pine and other greenery, reminds us of the “evergreen” of our loving God , always there pouring out hope and promise of new life. The delight of the first candle burning, then the second, third and fourth and finally, the longed for white one on Christmas Eve, hold so much symbolism from the prophets and shepherds to the Christ child himself. In spite of this awful pandemic, full of fear and anxiety, the light of these candles can hold for us much gentle comfort, memories and peace.
Then there are the readings. We are moving into a new liturgical year, the year of Mark. Letting go of Matthew for me is like letting go of a richly furnished room, full of gorgeous Eastern carpets and cushions. On the wall is a large beautiful tapestry full of colour. Stepping out of this lovely room and going into the next room, that of the gospel of Mark, for me is like going into a light-filled very simple and beautiful room. It is full of space and stillness. It will take a little time to get used to it after the richness of Matthew.
The gospel for today is short and clear: “Stay awake” is the direction we are given – repeated four times. Other words, like “watchful” and “be alert” are in other translations. But haven’t we all been watchful and alert and “awake” constantly as we are surrounded by this virus? We all could do with a break from it. But let us stop and remind ourselves that the call of Jesus for this season of Advent is not a call to anxiety and fear but to attentiveness, peace and faith in the nearness of God – Emmanuel, “God with us”. We meet the servants (us) who are left in charge, each with his or her own task. Maybe the tasks that we are involved in, however mundane, could be seen as a window into the wonderful “sacredness of the ordinary”. Emmanuel, “God with us”, in everything we are and do.
We also meet the doorkeeper. What a lovely image! It gives us the opportunity to reflect on all those who are and were the “doorkeepers” in our own lives. They kept the door open for us, even in our most difficult times. They always believed in us. It is a wonderful opportunity to remember them, honour them and thank them. Then of course we could reflect on what kind of “doorkeeper” we are. Though we cannot visit family or friends, how can we be more attentive, more “awake” doorkeepers at this time?
One of the WhatsApps I received recently has stayed with me as I reflect on the many “doorkeepers” in my life: ” I love people that have no idea how wonderful they are and just wander around making the world a better place”.
That brings me to the last line of the first reading from Isaiah: “And yet Lord, you are our father, we the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand”. What a magnificent line! It brings to mind, how working with clay brings with it a deep respect for the clay itself and also a slowing down to the pace that is required. I always find that a gentle, yet strong silence comes while working with clay. It reminds me of Mary, the central figure at Advent and Christmas, a woman “wrapped in silence”. She allowed willingly so much that was lovingly “done to her” with silence, love, gentleness and respect.
Another word that jumps out at me is from the second reading from 1 Corinthians: “He will keep you steady.” I think of how we all need a good dose of “steadiness” to get through this strange time.
Finally, I turn to nature with its short days and early darkness. We are on our way to the winter solstice and happily the return of light, that is the length of the step of a cockerel each day after that! That tiny daily measurement of light is filled with promise. But we must go through the darkness first. It reminds me of the tiny unseen creatures deep in the soil working away in the darkness. The roots of the trees always absorbing the nutrients created in the soil around them. The bare trees that were once covered with lush leaves, now stark and empty. I’m also reminded of all the frontline workers working quietly each day. I’m thinking of those suffering from the virus, or diagnosed with it, the fear of that, the vulnerability, and all living beings in need.
Already I have shed the leaves of youth,
stripped by the wind of time down to the truth
of winter branches. Linear and alone
I stand, a lens for lives beyond my own,
a frame through which another’s fire may glow,
a harp on which another’s passion, blow.
The pattern of my boughs, an open chart
spread on the sky, to others may impart
its leafless mysteries that I once prized,
before bare roots and branches equalized,
tendrils that tap the rain or twigs the sun
are all the same, shadow and substance one.
Now that my vulnerable leaves are cast aside,
there’s nothing left to shield, nothing to hide.
Blow through me, Life, pared down at last to bone,
so fragile and so fearless have I grown!
Sr Pauline McGrath OP