A reflection for the 2017 Fisher House Advent Retreat at Mount St Bernard's Abbey, Leicestershire by Sr Ann Swailes
Almost exactly a year ago, I was sitting, with a group of pilgrims from Fisher House, in the Paul VI audience hall in the Vatican, listening to Pope Francis talking about the season of Advent which we had just entered. The Holy Father spoke movingly about the way in which hope sustains us in the Christian life, not by offering us an escapist fantasy, denying the darkness and terror of our world, but by shining a light on precisely that world, the light that came into the world to be born among us at Christmas. And he underlined insistently the difference between secular optimism and Christian hope: optimism, he said disappoints, hope does not. Hope, on the contrary, makes the desert of our world, the desert of our lives, bloom, revealing beauty and fertility in a landscape we might previously have found arid and lifeless.
A Reflection from the Second Sunday of Advent 2017 by Sr Valery Walker
Stained glass widow from St. Dominic's Priory Church,
London. Photograph by Lawrence Lew o.p.
At the opening of today’s mass we prayed:
'God of power and mercy, open our hearts in welcome. Remove the things that hinder us from receiving Christ with joy, so that we may share his wisdom and become one with him when he comes in glory.'
As usual in Advent, we have had three very beautiful readings, all of which have a purpose; as John the Baptist cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” and Isaiah, “Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord. Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.” We are preparing for Christmas. We are preparing for the celebration of the first coming of our God – though at the same time St. Peter reminds us that we are preparing for his second coming, which will be very different from his first.
In preparing for Christmas we are preparing for the arrival of a baby, a new-born baby, his birthday. He is a baby who asks us, as I suppose all babies do, to take him into the ‘arms’ of our heart and cradle and love him there. But this baby is not just any baby. This baby is a Divine Person who has already, in the mysterious hidden free-will of his Sacred Heart, even in Our Lady’s womb, given himself wholeheartedly to our redemption and to the will of his Heavenly Father. A baby normally draws love to itself; this Baby breathes out love for every individual, he has taken all of us, each one of us, into that Heart. If we could see him in the manger of course we would see a very ordinary baby (if any baby is ever ‘ordinary’!) But this baby has drawn to himself shepherds from nearby and magi from afar; this baby is the one foretold by Isaiah, a shepherd himself, “feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms, holding them against his breast and leading to their rest the mother ewes”.
This is the generous, loving Heart that we are preparing to welcome at Christmas. We want our hearts to be ready, full of love for Him and joy at his coming; but even more we want to recognise Who He is and allow Him into our hearts, filling them with His Love, the Holy Spirit.
By Sr. Ann Catherine Swailes op.
This weekend, we celebrate a feast for rebels. That might sound surprising. Sunday is the great Solemnity of Christ the King, and royalty conjures up images of sumptuous wealth, establishment privilege, and unthinking, maybe fearful, kneejerk obedience to the powers-that-be. All this has often been true of earthly monarchy, of course – but this King is different.
In comparison with much of the Church’s calendar, Christ the King is a recent innovation, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925. It was a turbulent time in international politics, and consequently in the life of the Church, and the new feast spoke to that situation. Christians in some parts of the world – the Mexico of Grahame Greene’s The Power and the Glory for instance – were doubtless comforted by the thought that Christ, the King who conquered death, would be victorious over the forces that oppressed them. At least as important, with the rise of totalitarian dictatorships of left and right in Europe, was the reminder that we owe absolute allegiance to no one and nothing less than Christ himself. Neither party, nor state, nor nation nor political leader, no matter how charismatic and persuasive, should ever hold absolute sway over the hearts of those made in God’s image. Christ alone should rule there and compel our obedience.
But isn't obedience destructive of human flourishing, whoever asks it of us? Not if it is this King that we serve. The readings the Church gives us for the feast provide some hints here. This Sunday, the gospel tells us that God was not content to Lord it over us in splendid isolation, but, in Christ, became one of us, so much one of us that in our care for our neighbours in their most basic needs for food, drink, shelter and companionship, we are serving him. In other years, we are shown the strange picture of a King whose throne is the cross and whose crown is woven of thorns. Even unspeakable suffering, then, doesn’t have to destroy our God-given dignity, since Christ our King came to share it and triumph over it.
As the old hymn puts it, the one who is Lord of life, earth, sky and sea is also the King of Love on Calvary. And, providing we use only his weapons, the weapons of justice and gentleness, in making this known, that is a cause worth fighting for.