I hope you’re getting into the swing of Advent (which is, let’s face it, close to impossible when most people’s Christmas jumpers seem to appear around December 1st). But anyway, we ARE still waiting, and the spirituality of Advent is a wonderful teacher to us when we have things in our life that we are waiting for – perhaps to hear about a university or a job; or if we’re unclear about the way ahead; or if God seems to be ‘slow’ giving us light about a particular situation. Advent teaches us faithfulness and patience. Not to jump ahead of God and decide what we hope his answer will be. It teaches us to adhere to Him, fully.
This particular idea for Advent is a bit late now to do in your own parish, but I recommend remembering it for next year… Our parish priest had the wonderful idea of choosing an “Advent book” for the parish. Then, he went out (or more likely, went onto Amazon) and bought 400 copies of the book, and gave them out at Masses on the First Sunday of Advent, for a “donation only”. The book he chose was Archbishop Timothy Dolan’s Come Lord Jesus. If the only way people will read a Catholic book is to give them out for free, what a great thing to do!
This Advent, I’ve finally got round to reading Pope Benedict’s The Infancy Narratives – a year late, but never mind. In fact, it was my last parish priest who gave one to each catechist last Christmas. Unsurprisingly, this book is a complete joy to read – I think sometimes I could actually read Pope Benedict all day. Somehow, when he’s explaining the ins and outs of a particular exegetical conundrum, the light he sheds on the problem is unmistakable. Suddenly it seems very clear and almost radiant. I think you can tell when a person’s insight comes from both their scholarship and their sanctity, wrapped up into one package. And it is pretty rare, if you ask me.
The final book is a little different and not very Adventy. Last month my book club read Unapologetic – Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense, by Francis Spufford. I have to say, before reading it, I was somewhat dubious to say the least. I mean, why emotional sense? It sounded a bit subjective. And yes, it errs on the side of subjectivity. Spufford claims he only “thinks” God exists, and that his ideas are based on his feelings. The feelings come first. No one can know for sure either way. (Which of course depends what he means by “for sure”.) But, all this aside, and some of the unorthodox Christian premises aside, I do think this book is worth reading. For one, what the author does extremely well, is to be 100%, utterly, painfully honest. (Perhaps too honest.) He is honest about the human condition in a way that we often fail to do as Christians who present the faith to others. We can sometimes be too quick to teach doctrines without looking at the real, experienced life of the people we are speaking to. It is easy to teach and explain doctrines, and not easy to get to grips with the gritty messiness of people’s lives, and to see how God might be at work in their life, or how he might truly transform it. The strength of Spufford’s book, I think, is to say that it is precisely the chaos and the pain that God has come into that causes Christianity to make emotional sense. In other words, other readings of reality – atheism being one of them – don’t come to grips with real life – in the way that Christianity does. Contrary to the atheist slogans on the side of the bus, for most people real life is not “enjoyable”.
This is a challenge for us as Christians, and especially for catechists, those of us who teach the faith. Let us not teach the faith in a way that is utterly divorced from lived experience. Let us be honest about the wretchedness of life for many people (including our own – we all have grey days) – and show that it is precisely this that Christ comes into and transforms.
To finish off, I thought you might like this – Spufford’s stereotyping of believers: “…believers are people who try to insert Jee-zus into conversations at parties; who put themselves down, with writhings of unease, for perfectly normal human behaviour; who are constantly trying to create a solemn hush that invites a fart, a hiccup, a bit of subversion. Believers are people who, on the rare occasions when you have to listen to them, like at a funeral or a wedding, seize the opportunity to pour the liquidised content of a primary-school nativity plan in your earhole… Believers are the people touting a solution without a problem, and an embarrassing solution too, a really damp-palmed, wide-smiling, can’t-dance solution. In an anorak.”
This is a great book to read if you’re at the interface between Catholicism and the trenchant cynicism of our post-modern culture. (All of us, then!)