I must make a confession: I don’t like Advent. Or – to be more precise – its liturgical aspect. Let me explain why briefly. Across the country, Christmas lights are being switched on in villages, towns and cities. Shops, with very few exceptions, are kitted out in their Christmas décor and have a tempting assortment of goodies and promotions on offer. Black Friday and Cyber Monday have dominated online shopping, no longer confining themselves to those two days but extending well beyond them. It’s virtually impossible to avoid any reference to Christmas, be it in public places, in the media, or in passing conversation. The whole run-up to Christmas seems to be more important than the actual feast itself. And – generally speaking – the atmosphere throughout Advent is pretty joyful. Which is good, because Advent, by definition, is a time of eager and joy-filled waiting. Where, then, does my problem lie?
The biblical readings at Mass during Advent seem to be at odds with such a joyous atmosphere all around us. Think about today’s gospel and the ‘cheery’ message proclaimed by John the Baptist: ‘Brood of vipers, who warned you to fly from the retribution that is coming? Even now the axe is laid to the roots of the trees…’ It’s just a short extract from John’s quite long and rather unsettling rant. My job, as a priest, is to preach; and, as I prefer to stick to the readings for the day, the message that they convey comes right up against the prevalent atmosphere of joy. So, in Advent I’ve always felt like a right party-pooper, a ‘typical’ minister of religion, bent on being an old misery guts, blunting even the slightest signs of joie-de-vivre by preaching doom and gloom. Until now.
The first of today’s readings looks like a description of a utopian, impossible world in the future, when all hostilities will cease: ‘The wolf lives with the lamb, the panther lies down with the kid, calf and lion cub feed together with a little boy to lead them. The cow and the bear make friends, their young lie down together.’ If you have watched ‘Planet Earth II’ on the BBC, you will know how improbable these predictions are. But the prophet isn’t playing the part of David Attenborough in the Bible! The prophet is talking about the animals living in you and in me. These are even reflected in the many words we use to describe people’s behaviour or their attitudes: ‘sheep-ish’, ‘bull-y’, ‘cow-ard’… Christmas is a magical time when we try to tame the animal within us and to coexist peacefully even with those we cannot stand all the year round. Sadly, quite often these efforts of ours may not last much beyond Christmas dinner…
In a couple of weeks’ time millions of people around the globe will set out, some of them on journeys of thousands of miles, facing up to the uncertainties of travel and of potential industrial action, in order to meet up with their families and friends. Others, like myself, unable to go away at this time, will spend hours on the phone or the Internet talking to their loved ones in distant lands. It will be an admirable effort. It could be even more exquisite if it didn’t stop after Christmas Day! Taming the animal within is an ongoing process that never, ever stops.
An old Cherokee was teaching his grandson about life. ‘A fight is going on inside me,’ he said to the boy. ‘It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.’ He continued, ‘The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.’ The grandson thought about this for a minute, and then he asked his grandfather, ‘Which wolf will win?’ The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘The one you feed.’