First Sunday of Advent - “Stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” [Mt 24.44]
Happy New Year!
When I was about twelve, I went to a military pageant. This was a show put on by the local regiment of the Army called the “Blues and Royals”. And it was a very special display because it was being attended by the Queen. And so the entire regiment had been got up to stand on parade in order to welcome Her Magesty. So there they were, all got up in their best, bright polished kit – red, blue and gold, all standing sharply to attention and looking very smart indeed.
Only two things went wrong.
The first was that it was a baking hot day - about 85 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. The second was that the Queen was late – by several hours! Worse, no-one knew when she was actually going to get there. Some people wondered if she was ever going to come at all.
So the poor soldiers had to stand there for about hour after hour, standing rigidly to attention, absolutely still and absolutely silent and just do nothing and wait, for something that might take place at any moment; or might not take place at all.
To me - as a small boy who could not have stood silently and still for more than about ten minutes, let alone in the roasting hot sun - this seemed like the height of discipline and strength of will. And it also seemed a total waste. With every respect to Her Majesty, why couldn’t the Queen just have been on time and saved everyone all this trouble? Even better, why did they just stand still and wait? Why didn’t they go off and do something useful for the time - five hours for 5,000 men is 25,000 man hours - nearly three man-years – wasted, waiting for some something which might never even happen! Surely they could have done something useful in that time? Why didn’t they at least have the sense to come in out of the sun?
Well, we are now starting our 2011th year of waiting for the Lord’s return to us in glory. For some people that is exactly as senseless as spending five hours waiting in the hot sun for the Queen. And so it would be if that sense of waiting paralysed us from work rather than motivating us to it. If we stand still and silent waiting for the Lord to come to put everything all right, then we may wait a long time and we may waste our own opportunities to build His Kingdom.
It is not as if there is not enough to do. Next Wednesday is World Aids Day. I listened to an interview with a South American Minister of Health - who said very simply that unless something is done to halt the spread of HIV & AIDS, then it will destroy his entire nation - economically, socially, politically. All the effort that has gone into building his nation will have been for nothing. All the work that people have put into building, into developing factories, schools, public services, roads, whatever, will have been for nothing. Even the efforts that have gone into disagreeing and fighting and politicking about the different ways forward for the country will have been for nothing.
As we wait this Advent for the Lord, if we wait silently, standing motionless to attention with our arms by our sides, then we will wait in vain. If we commit ourselves to working actively in God’s service in whatever way we are each and individually called, we will make it a Happy New Year for the Church of Christ in the World.
As I once heard Nelson Mandela say on the radio at a meeting in South Africa to celebrate World Aids Day three or four years ago, ‘Christmas comes – the Kingdom of God comes – in every act of kindness by one human being to another.”
That is how we shall stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour we do not expect but constantly look forward to in hope.
Fr Paul O'Reilly is a Jesuit priest. He is also a medical doctor, working with homeless patients at the Dr Hickey Surgery, in Arneway Street, Victoria, central London.