Looking for Advent

Whatever happened to Advent? It’s still a fixture in the Catholic Church, and has been so ever since the tenth century, but now it’s gradually being overshadowed by a commercially-led, month-long celebration of Christmas.

Australia should be a wonderful place to celebrate Advent. While the northern hemisphere shivers and sits in the dark, jacarandas splash their seasonal bluey-purple flowers across our suburbs and we rejoice in the light, long days of it. There’s the palpable sense of endings, soon to be followed by the possibilities in new beginnings.

Then there’s the shopping malls. Usually I like the buzz of a shopping mall, but I get no satisfaction from this Santa Claus approach to the celebration of the birth of the Christ – seasonally linked songs on repeat play, holly wreaths, red bows and sparkly stars, pine trees sprinkled with un-Australian fake snow, and gift suggestions every which way you look.

A one-size-fits-all liturgy is part of my catholic inheritance, but the Advent focus on the clarion call words of John the Baptiser has little in common with either my life or December in today’s Australia. While the Church’s liturgical offerings for the four weeks of Advent make sense in my head, I struggle to find their relevance in the pre-Christmas bustle and anticipation that surrounds me.

For centuries the voice of Advent has been the camel-skin clad John the Baptiser, preaching his fiery message of repentance to a people waiting for the coming of the Lord. This John had a famous mother. Her name was Eli-sheba, but we know her as Elizabeth, wife of Zechariah, a woman mostly sidelined to the incident we know as the Visitation. I think I’d rather she was the voice of Advent.

ElizabethElizabeth and her kinswoman Mary were two women in crisis, one young, unmarried and pregnant, the other much older and expecting a never-to be-expected first child. Mary did not go to Joseph for understanding, or to her father for protection. Neither did she go to the temple priests for vindication. Confused and needing support, she did what women across the ages have done – she sought the company of another woman, one she could trust, a woman who herself was also in an extraordinary situation.

All her married life Elizabeth had longed for a child. Like Abraham’s wife, Sarah, she had to suffer the whispered comments and snide judgments from family and friends who inferred that infertility inferred God’s punishment for wrongdoing. But she waited, never giving up hope, always quietly attuned to the God within her.

As she and Mary greeted one another Elizabeth felt a surge of something that was more than a baby kick -a deep, unsupported knowing that the woman she was embracing was the mother of him who was to come. Elizabeth was the first person to recognise Mary’s baby as the Christ. She was not only a woman of hope, courageous and joyful, she was a prophet. God’s storyline, then and now, is woven through women, the life bearers, nurturers, the very human touch of God.

This Advent, when the place of women in the Church, and in society, is for many a source of pain and conflict, we could look to Elizabeth – an older woman, faithful when it seemed hopeless, standing firm as she challenged religious customs and tradition. As Elizabeth did, we wait.

Judith Scully

Ordinary time

Fires are still out of control in New South Wales and Queensland, our one and only Australian Bushfire 2cardinal is back in court today to hear whether or not he has the right to appeal his sentence for sexual child abuse and our voted-in parliamentarians don’t seem to understand anything much. But for most of us it’s just an ordinary day

From the viewpoint of my own days, other people’s ordinary can seem to be a lot more interesting. My daughter calls on the way home from work, stuck in traffic after a day spent in back-to-back meetings dealing with matters that are crucial to the large company that employs her. “How’s your day been Mum?” Well, not much to report there – the first agapanthus of the season has reared its head and, well, the rest of the day was just ordinary.

Thomas Merton, a Cistercian monk who died in 1968, once said, “We spend most of our lives under water. Every so often our head clears the surface and we look around and get our bearings. Then blik, we go back under again. In the moments when we get our bearings, we realize, Oh my God! Look how endlessly trustworthy life is! Look at the God-given, godly nature of simple things!”

My faith tells me that God hides in the ordinary but there never seems to be anything spiritual about a host of myriad details culminating in something as petty as ‘What will I cook for dinner?’ Maybe that’s because cradle Catholics like me were convinced that we didn’t deserve God’s friend-like attention. God was to be found in a church building, not a kitchen, a workspace or a car.

It was only when I read books and articles that said God meets you where you are, and God comes to you disguised as your life, that I could let go of the perception that I didn’t have to go looking for God, or learn a special language, find a church open to kneel in or study theology. God met me where I was.

When we feel a connectedness with people or things, God is there. When something lifts inside us, and suddenly we feel lighter, God is there. When the words of a song, a child’s response, a sentence in a book or a phrase from Scripture sings along in our mind and heart, God is there. God is in the ordinary, in the actual, in the daily, in the now, in what we might consider the accidental, even sinful.

Sometimes the ordinary of a day is shattered by unexpected change or loss. A house is destroyed in a bushfire, there is an unexpected death, an employment is terminated, a friendship is lost, a promise is broken, a diagnosis saps hope. Pain envelops us as we struggle to believe in the mysterious ‘nowness’ of God.

God borrows our hearts when we reach in compassion to those who have lost homes and belongings in the fires. God carries the anguish we feel when we mourn an untimely death, the just anger that grabs us when whole countries are overridden by men with guns and rockets, the shame we feel when countries like our own and the USA close their borders to people escaping religious or cultural persecution.

But when you let God share your ordinary, be prepared. God will push your edges.

Judith Scully