First Sunday of Advent. Fr Timothy Radcliffe launches the English Dominican Electronic Publishing House with a homily for the First Sunday of Advent.
‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.’ In the last few weeks many people’s lives in England have been disturbed by floods, bringing chaos to their lives. In the time of Jesus ‘the roaring of the sea and the waves’ symbolized the collapse of our ordered world, the unleashing of destruction. Our worlds may collapse for many reasons. Our marriage may breakdown; we may lose our jobs, discover that we have cancer, become estranged from our children. In all of these situations, we may feel overwhelmed by disaster, and that our lives have no meaning. Then, Jesus says, ‘Stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’ When we feel bowed down, Jesus tells us to stand up erect, with our heads raised, because salvation is at hand.
There was a moment in the evolution of humanity when our ancestors stopped scuttling around on all fours, and stood up on two feet. Homo erectus could look into the distance, and our hands were free to make tools. Standing upright belongs to human dignity. When life is hard, then we may let ourselves be bent down again, ‘weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life’, as Jesus says. And whenever tyrants have wished to destroy human dignity, they try to bring us down to the ground again. When St Edmund Campion was arrested in the reign of Elizabeth I, he was put in a cell called The Little Ease, which you can still see in the Tower of London today, and in which the prisoner cannot stand upright. Some of our brethren in Vietnam spent years in small bamboo cages, as their jailers tried to break their spirits.
So when our lives collapse and lose their meanings, when we feel flattened and bowed down, Jesus invites us to stand upright. And we can do this because, the Gospel says, we will see the Son of Man coming with power and glory. This refers to the end, God’s final triumph over chaos and all that destroys human life. But it also refers to Jesus enthroned on the cross in glory. Everything was done to crush Jesus, to humiliate and bring him low, but it became a moment of glory. He was lifted up high on the cross, upright on the cross. The most ancient representations of the cross do not show a broken man, but Jesus as a king in glory.
We can stand upright too, because in his death Christ embraced all that could crush us. He was overwhelmed by chaos; the sun was darkened, the world collapsed. But he stood upright for all of us. He brought humanity to its feet. The Lord has suffered every humiliation that flattens us, and he stands erect, lifted up by his and our Father. Leo the Great said in his Christmas sermon: ‘O Christian, be aware of your nobility. It is God’s own nature that you share.’ Nothing can ultimately bring us low, to the ground.
‘Stand up and raise your heads’ sounds very like ‘Stand up on your own two feet’. But the English expression implies that being upright is an act of individual will-power, something we must do alone. But the Gospel invites to help each other to our feet. Peter heals the lame man outside the Temple: ‘”In the name of Jesus walk.” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up. And immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.’ Let us prepare for the coming of Christ this Advent by helping each other to our feet. The test of a true Christian love is that it makes those whom we love strong. Once in Rwanda during the massacres, soldiers burst into our priory and made all of the brethren lie flat on the ground, putting pistols against their heads. When the soldiers left, the brethren helped each other to their feet, and shared the joy of standing up together.