Given at the Advent Carol Service at the Palace of Westminster on 2 December 2015.
Advent is the time of our reflection on the coming of Christ. Rather I should say 'on the comings of Christ' for we are invited to reflect, and open our hearts to, not only the coming of Jesus Christ at his human birth, in Bethlehem, but also at his coming at the end of history. And to these two visible comings of the Lord, we also add a third: his coming daily to us, in the work of the Holy Spirit, an invisible coming, yet manifest in so many different ways.
These early days of Advent focus most explicitly on the second coming of Christ, at that time which will mark the end of our history and bring it to its fulfilment. In the Scriptures we read graphic, apocalyptical descriptions of this moment, which we await in faith. However its meaning centres on two main points, two foundational aspects of our faith.
This coming of Christ 'in power and glory' is the moment of final fulfilment. St Paul speaks of 'all creation groaning in one great act of giving birth' until that moment comes. At that moment every human being is to be brought into the pure light of God and comes to the fulfilment for which they were first created: to have a share in God's glory for ever. So the truth of faith being proclaimed here is that all creation and every person are created for an ultimate purpose, a fulfilment. Creation is an intentional act. The Creator, who holds all things in being, does so with a definite and wondrous motive and purpose. Creation is an outpouring of love by which infinite goodness is being offered and shared. Creation, then, is not simply a cosmic occurrence. All beings exist as part of an ordered world and are destined for a final fulfilment. No human person, then, is an accident, nothing more than an 'existential moment', a package of experiences destined to be snuffed out and forgotten, sooner or later.
There are hints of this deepest truth to be seen everywhere. The endless questioning of the childhood mind: Why? Why? Why? points to a human instinct for purpose that doesn't disappear with age, although it can become overwhelmed by complexity and pain. The rhythm and patterns of the created order, from the structure of the atom to the beauty of a sunset, point to the mind of the creator and to the future fulfilment written into that work.
This is the deepest truth behind the powerful concern for the wellbeing of the created world being shown on the streets of the world's cities this weekend. The care of our common home is seen in the most profound meaning in the light of this Advent truth: the fulfilment of all things in Christ.
But there is a second truth also proclaimed in our Advent reflection on the second coming of Christ: that there will be a judgement, that we human beings who have been graced with free will and intelligence, will come to this moment in which the true purpose of our world and of our lives will be seen with such intense clarity that our failings, our sins, will be before us in blinding clarity. From this final judgement, preceded by an individual judgment at the time of our individual death, there is no escape. But nor need there be fear. We are reminded of this, most powerfully, by the Year of Mercy which begins shortly throughout the Catholic Church and more widely, I hope. For this is the truth: if, at that moment of final judgment, I accept my failings, my sins, as I can do so at every moment of judgment during my life, most particularly in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, then I fall into the merciful arms of the Lord, who stands there not simply in His judgment but to let His mercy overwhelm that judgment and raise me to new life. This final judgment then is the moment in which I am caressed by the mercy of God and restored and raised to that glory for which I was first created.
Final fulfilment and final judgement: these are the Advent truths on which we reflect today.
But there are also our daily challenges, the ways in which we live this 'in between' time, knowing not only what lies ahead but also what lies before our eyes in every moment. It is in the light of these two truths that we navigate our way each day, recognising that within every human heart there is not only that well of goodness which points to our final fulfilment but also a reservoir of confusion, conflicting motivations, anger, jealousy, resentment, revenge and sheer malevolence. For this, our fallen human nature, we most certainly need the daily coming of the Lord, in his grace, his word, his insistent and enabling call to goodness and compassion. And because we are social beings, never the isolated individuals that some propose today, these conflicting trends work on the global stage too, within the dynamics of the history of a people, stirred by a memory of wrongs long past, manipulated by malevolent minds or by the various hungers that stalk our consciousness: for wealth, for power, for ultimate security in worldly terms.
Today we look at the immensely complex knot of conflicting motivations and hungers so violently at work among the peoples and the powers of the Middle East. We have to face up to a particular, very evident and inhuman evil and bring it to a halt. But how do we fashion such a pathway? Part of that must be a determination in our deeds not to fall into making fresh enemies by indiscriminate actions; part of it must be a fresh wisdom about what is needed for long term stability, recognising that current and recent ways of resolving conflicts in that regions have fallen far short; part of it must be an unfailing respect for every victim of violence and a determination to build on the goodness of each person while being absolutely vigilant for the perverse and dangerous intent lodged in some.
I was speaking recently to friends from a small town in southern Germany. The town has a population of 22,000 people. They are receiving 500 refugees. They are ready to do so with a real show of generosity. Indeed, my friends said that the arrival of these people, from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria, is energising their community, refreshing that sense of wider purpose which gives such satisfaction. Hundreds of people have volunteered to help: teaching them German, spending time in talking with them, offering introductory and practical guides to life in Germany. There is a growing sense of respect for the refugees and their desire to build a new life for themselves and their families. Here are families and a community mutually benefitting from brave political decisions, matched by generosity of the people, which express precisely the sense of greater purpose of our lives and resources of which Advent gives the full picture.
Speaking of this 'meantime', the time in which we live out our lives, Jesus said, 'Watch yourselves or your hearts will be coarsened... by the cares of life.' How true that is, especially for you who struggle with courage and true intent to directly ameliorate the hardships and conflicts that are the characteristics of this age. Yet you, like me, will also see immense signs of goodness in the actions and concerns of so many people, not least in the ways in which families nurture all that is best within each other.
Advent also turns our eyes to the first coming of Him whom we rightly call our Saviour. Here is the family circle at its best, creating and sustaining values which, as Pope Francis says, are not listed on the Stock Exchange, but which rank more highly that those which are. Here in the family of Nazareth, we see again that poverty, which must be fought against, need not destroy human dignity. However, in the ways in which poverty is countered, both at the international level and in every local project that dignity must be upheld. The family, honoured in its rights and duties, is the strongest antidote to the corrosive effects of poverty. This too we can celebrate in this season.
I thank you for this opportunity to reflect with you. I also take it to express my thanks for all you do and to wish you and your families a peaceful and blessed Advent and Christmas Feast when it comes.