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Advent is a time to pause and reflect

THE BOW IN THE HEAVENS explains how we have to make a path for the Lord at this special time —By FR JOHN BOLLAN

I’m just back from the cemetery: our end of November run of funerals has extended into the start of Advent. Once again, I’m in trouble with the housekeeper for bringing quite a bit of my work home with me, in the substantial amount of mud I have trailed back into the house. Muddy shoes are an occupational hazard for priests throughout the year, not just winter.

I’ve noticed that more families are opting—weather conditions permitting—for music at the graveside after the committal. This morning we were treated to Dame Shirley Bassey belting out I am what I am over the sweeping vista of Knocknairshill across to the mountains and hills of Argyll and Bute. At least the family had given me advance notice of this and I wasn’t left, as had happened in the past, red-faced at a less-than-appropriate curtain closer.

Indeed, I was able to offer a few words by way of theological commentary on La Bassey’s contribution to the funeral rites. Although the song claims that ‘I am my own special creation,’ that is never quite true.

We are shaped by our relationships, as much as we shape them. And, of course, we are God’s creation: each of us, as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminded us, the result of a unique thought in the mind of God. In fact, ‘I am what I am’ is a fairly close approximation of God’s name as revealed to Moses, ‘I Am Who I Am’ (Exodus 3:14). In the end, it’s our relationship with He Who Is which makes Us Who We Are. I can hear the sirens of the grammar police in the distance…

One thing I regret nowadays is that I seldom have time to join the families after a funeral for a blether over a cup of tea or a sausage roll. That in itself is a form of after-care but, alas, there is almost always something in the diary which requires my urgent attention. Sometimes it’s this column.

Speaking of sausage rolls, I gather there was a bit of a kerfuffle recently over a Greggs’ advert which offered us an alternative Nativity scene with a pork-based pastry product occupying the manger in place of the newborn King of the Jews. You can see how this might be offensive to both Christians and Jews. I doubt this was deliberately calculated to cause offence, however: I just imagine some naïve marketing graduate thinking this was the most hilarious idea ever and some executive who should have known better waving it through.

What irks me personally about something like that is not so much the ‘offence,’ but the lack of awareness and sensitivity behind it. This is compounded by the equally idiotic chorus of laughter and ‘right on’ commentary which followed its publication and subsequent removal. I doubt God is capable of offence in that sense—although, as the Catechism reminds us, all sin is an offence against God. In its original form, the crime of blasphemy has had its day, but I am offended by ignorance and religious illiteracy as it is manifested in that clunker of an advert. It’s not even clever, for goodness’ sake.

I’m sure most priests sigh—at least inwardly—when someone says to them ‘this will be your busy time, Father,’ as if you’ve been doing nothing for the rest of the year. It is true, however, that the social side of a priest’s ministry tends to move up a gear. And, just as there is a pastoral side to sausage roll eating at a purvey, so there is a ‘ministry’ of pensioners’ dinners and Nativity plays. Although Our Lord railed against the hollow show of the Pharisees and the reserving of the best seats and so on, it is important to be seen at such events—especially if you can wangle a discreet seat at the back or near the door!

Advent means Confession season in the high school, and, together with my colleagues in neighbouring parishes, we will be doing our best to give the lower half of the school an opportunity to approach the Sacrament of Reconciliation or, for those who choose not to do so or are not Catholics, the chance of a quick chat to see how things are going. The aim is help them make a straight path for the Lord in the midst of all the rushing around which affects schools no less than other places—in fact, sometimes a bit more.

In fact, a conversation I had in the hearse this morning reminded me of the theme of this Sunday’s Advent liturgy. Those familiar with Greenock and the back road towards Inverkip will probably have taken the sharp bends at Baker Street—or Baker’s Brae, as we locals call it. The council has taken steps to widen this road by demolishing properties either side of this busy road.

I was asking if the funeral directors when the project was due for completion and he replied that, while summer 2018, is the date mentioned, following demolition, the ground needs to be left to settle. Not being a technical sort of chap, this was news to me: that, after knocking down and clearing the land, it needs to be allowed time to ‘rest.’

That adds an extra dimension to the words of Isaiah and John the Baptist in this Sunday’s readings. There is that dynamism of levelling, way making and road building. The message is frequently a strident one, of sweeping away obstacles and forcing through the debris of sin, prevarication and hypocrisy. But, in the midst of all this ‘construction,’ there needs to be a pause, a time for the land to rest and settle. Of course, that road is made not just by us but through us. Advent requires, then, not just to be busy but restful as well. We need to allow time for the cleared ground to settle, lest what we put over it proves to be merely temporary and uneven.

To this end, I am hoping—but by no means certain—of a chance to gather with the other priests of the diocese in a day of recollection led by our own Canon David Cotter and Fr John Eagers. Some of the primary school kids of the diocese, including a respectable number from our own St Joseph’s, will also be having an Advent retreat here in our Parish Hall this Sunday. This event is being run by the Salesian Youth Ministry team and our own Diocesan Youth Office. It’s nice that, from the youngest to some of the very oldest, Advent is bringing us opportunities to pause and reflect.

One personal aspect of this time of year which I have so far put off is the writing of cards and the commencement of my own Christmas shopping. I must admit, though, that the time has come to get my turbo-charged roller skates on. Either that, or I will end up like some grotesque consumer version of John the Baptist, fighting my way through the last-minute crowds, screaming at the top of my voice at fellow shoppers to unhand the few remaining ‘must-have’ toys of 2017. These include the ‘Nerf Nitro Long Shot’ and the picturesquely named ‘Toilet Trouble.’ And that would be unfortunate for everyone concerned.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not for a moment poo-pooing ‘Toilet Trouble,’ indeed, it sounds exactly like the kind of intellectual challenge my family enjoy after a day of protracted festivity: it’s just that, due to another of my character flaws, I am very competitive. It would surely be the nadir of my downward-

spiralling career if it turned out my principal ambition on Christmas Day was to be crowned ‘King of the Toilet.’ But, then again, I’ve been called a lot worse.

 

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