It is abundantly obvious to me now that, when all we have is time, nothing is more boring or meaningless. You may have noticed that I had no post dedicated to the Immaculate Conception for Our Lady's feast day, nor was there a post for the third Sunday of Advent. This was because I was suffering gout in my right hand, a consequence of chemotherapy. It is a relatively mild form of chemotherapy, but one that seems to go on for ever; and my spirits over the last couple of months have being going down and down.
What atheists do in these circumstances, I have no idea. Perhaps they are just braver than I am.. Slowly I realized that God is knocking at my door. All my normal means of coping, making life interesting and passing the time were either impossible or needed too much effort, and I realized that I have been presented with a stark choice, either to concentrate on my woes, to mourn my lack of energy and opportunity, to lament having to stay here in England rather than in my community in Pachacamac, which would get me nowhere, or on the other hand, to see each moment as a sacrament, accepting the good and the bad, the comfortable and the painful, whtaever naturally causes happiness or distress, as coming from God. God is challenging me to live my faith, and chemotherapy is a second noviciate.
I have adopted the phrase "sacrament of the present moment" from the wonderful work "Abandonment to Divine Providence" by Father Jean-Pierre de Caussade s.j. that has come to my rescue many times before. It concentrates on the present moment, looking at it with the eyes of faith. To see each moment as a sacrament with all its components crammed full of opportunities to do his will, to make my own the words of Our Lady, "Let it be done unto me according to your will". Holy Spirit can act in synergy wth my will for the furtherance of the kingdom. This is an internal revolution that needs to take place in the hearts of all Christians again and again, and I am being challenged to put myself in God's hands. It is not what we do but the extent to which we surrender ourselves to God's will in what we do that really matters. The climax of Christ's life was not his miracles or teaching, but the moment he was obedient unto death. St Martin de Porres probably did more for the sake of the kingdom by sweeping the cloister than the prior of the Dominicans did by preaching to the Viceroy. Once more I was being challenged to get my priorities right.
By meeting Christ in the sacrament of the present moment we insert ourselves in Christian time, in time illuminated by our faith because it has been sanctified by the events that are the objects of our faith and which we celebrate in the liturgy: Christian time is liturgical time. Christ in his resurrection has given time a focal point, a goal, a purpose and hence a meaning. Being the work of our Creator, this meaning is not just a product of our minds, of our culture, our very own work: it belongs to the very structure of time itself at every level: cosmic time, human history, every human biography and the present moment which reflects Christ's presence. Time finds its focal point, its goal, its purpose and meaning in transcending itself because Jesus, a man, born in time and part of this creation, is also God and eternal; and he passed through death, resurrection, ascension from time to share in eternity the divine life as Son of the Father. Time and eternity are no longer opposites: time can reflect eternity and will eventually find its perfection by transcending itself in general resurrection. All human beings are called to pass through Christ's death and resurrection into the life of God. This ascent through death into the interior life of God has become a kind of black hole through which the cosmos must pass so that there is a new heaven and a new earth in the Parousia.
Christian time began when the eternal Son of God became a human being, when the divine nature and human nature were united for all eternity in the Person of the Son in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. That is the First Coming and will reach its goal when time melts into eternity at the Second Coming. Advent is the season of preparation for these Two Comings. It reminds us that our lives and every moment within them gain their meaning from the fact that, in them, we share with Christ what happened to him in the past and anticipate in our Christian lives what is going to happen in the future. This is possible because we are united at every moment with Christ who is the Alpha and Omega of all.
In Advent we remember the millions of years of careful preparation leading up to the Incarnation, but we concentrate on the prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. All the great Old Testament saints are Advent saints and their faith was an Advent faith. Abraham, at the beginning of the story, places all his trust in the promise of God, a promise that, in his perspective, would be fulfilled in the remote future He was given a vocation that he could never fulfil by himself while he was obeying God; yet he continued to trust and to obey, knowing that God would fulfil his promise in his own way. For this reason he is our "father in the faith". Between Abraham and the Incarnation there is a history of Advent faith and advent grace which has left us examples of great sanctity, fruit of God's intimate relationship with his people. The towering figure of Moses, of David and the prophets, the wonder of so much Old Testament writings, psalms and spiritual canticles. Yet this Advent faith and Advent grace could not reach its full potential. Close as it was, this relationship with God had to operate across a great divide between God and the human race. It is this that made the grace so wonderful, manifesting the magnificent power of God; but, at the same time, it was this that called out for the union between God and humanity that only the Incarnation would bring. Advent grace was itself a promise that God in his love would so be united with humanity that mere creatures would share in his very divine life .
We look back at the first Coming of Christ and realize the importance of preparation in the eyes of God. We look at the future second Coming and realize that we too are preparing for an event, though even we have no idea how it is going to come about nor when. We know that Christ, who is Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, is knocking at the door and we have to prepare ourselves for him to enter. We celebrate the Mass, going beyond past and future into the ever-present of heaven and receive Christ into the depth of our heart, too often without sufficient preparation. We realize that there is an Advent dimension to our Christian lives and to the mission of the Church.
Looking back at the Incarnation we notice two Advent saints of particular importance, Our Lady and St John the Baptist. The Immaculate Conception is an Advent event: the grace given to Mary from the first moment of her conception was grace in preparation for the Coming of Christ, yet to be transcended and fulfilled by the Incarnation in her womb. She is the perfect model of Old Testament holiness; so much so that she is the personification of Israel awaiting the Messiah, receiving him and obeying him. The thing that people have remembered down the ages is that it was the Jews who crucified Christ; but they forget that in Mary the Jews accepted Christ and did so in a way unequalled by anyone else. The Jews did both, just like us. Mary is also the model of Christian sanctity. When the archangel Gabriel told her she would be the mother of the Messiah, she asked how this could be because she was a virgin. The Angel told her that the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the shadow of the Most High would rest on her. Her response was, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord, May it happen to me according to your word." In this dialogue is revealed the inner structure of the Christian life. The Church does what is humanly impossible because the Holy Spirit has come on Pentecost and the Church responds to God's demand by "Amen" ( which is the equivalent of 'I am the handmaid of the Lord......" in Aramaic). The Christian life is to increasingly make Mary's response our own. When we do this in the Eucharist, we too receive Christ in us. However, Mary prepared for that day with a life lived open to the Spirit since the first moment of her conception. To what extent do we prepare ourselves to receive Our Lord?
St John the Baptist is the patron saint of the Advent dimension of our life. As we benefit from his intercession, we can also benefit from his example. Firstly we should heed his call for conversion. What areas of our lives are orientated away from God? We need to turn round and re-direct those area of our lives and centre them on Christ. Christ is risen and present within me, and the axe is laid at the root of the trees. Christ is within me and hence it is judgement day because there are areas of my life in which he cannot go, spaces where he cannot enter. Perhaps the greatest single obstacle to Christ living and working in me and through me is myself, hence, "He must increase and I must decrease."
If this is true of us as individuals in our interior lives, it is also true of us in our mission as members of the Church. Like St John the Baptist we must fulfil our mission in the Church in such a way that Christ can act through us. "He must increase and I must decrease" is the best liturgical rubric: it is Christ who presides through the priest. If all the people remember of the priest's sermon are his jokes and his affability, if they leave the Mass full of praise for him so that his Mass is better than all the others, then he had celebrated badly and he hasn't preached at all. In everything we do, we should do it with the humility that directs attention away from us and toward the most silent and most active participant of the Mass, Jesus himself. "He must increase and I must decrease" is a good motto fir Advent.
We seem to have strayed a long way from chemotherapy, anxiety, not knowing what secondary effect is coming next, a feeling of uselessness and from the relationship of all this to the sacrament of the present moment. Every moment is either meaningless or sacramental at any time of the year; but at this time, it has an Advent flavour. To benefit from the present moment as a sacrament I must have a fundamental change of attitude (again!!) It is a call to conversion. I must turn away from judging my quality of life from what I am able to do, and to turn towards the presence of Christ within me and within my circumstances. I must decrease and he must increase; and I must simply wait for God's will, knowing that I am living by God's providence and trusting his help. I know that the more I do that, the more worthwhile my life will be, even if I do not see it that way. Come, Lord Jesus!!