Wednesday 2 December 2020

Cycles and Opportunities

Sometimes life can just make us feel like we are going round in circles. We have the same routines each day, the same breakfast cereal, catching the same bus at the same time every day. People too can become predictable and sometimes it is all too easy to guess how this or that one will react or answer a question. And sometimes, just sometimes, all this can seem very tedious. We wonder ‘Will things ever change?’ and ‘Will our dreams ever come true?’ For others, of course, anything that breaks the cycle and takes us out of our routine can be uncomfortable, and leaves us feeling somewhat vulnerable. We like our routine and the predictability of it. We know our place and we can fulfil what is expected of us.

In the ancient world the widespread view was that history was cyclical. The natural cycle of life and death, of the changing seasons and the repetition of work and society led to the notion that history moves in great cycles. In one sense, there would be no need to worry as it would all come right again. In the time of our Lord, the Jews, who practised sacrificial worship in the Temple, were no different. Each day, and on great feasts, sacrifice would be offered to God in thanksgiving or to atone for the sins of the people. These sacrifices, the worship of God in the Temple in Jerusalem had a cosmic function — they kept the cycles of History moving from the place which was the very centre of the earth, the best place to meet God.

For Christians, a different reality dawned the moment an angel, those astonishing creatures of pure light, paid a house-call to a Virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph of the House of David. That angel was on the most important of errands, and although he had a question to ask this young woman, and although she was free to do as she pleased, she had been waiting her whole life for this extraordinary visitor, and had waited her whole life to say ‘yes’. This wasn’t part of any cycle, and it certainly hadn’t happened before. In the space it took to blink after saying the word, ‘yes’, God’s extraordinary plan was enacted in time, and a new course was taken. God himself had broken into the created world so gently and pitched his tent among us.

The Liturgical Year can feel very much like the cycles the ancient people maintained. Advent comes around again and again, and with it Christmas, and then the rest. But one day, of this we can be certain, there will be no more Advents in this world, but rather the babe-king we await will have come with clouds descending and it will be marvellous.

Rather than as cycles, it is often better to think of these times as opportunities. All along life’s journey God presents us with opportunities again and again to grow in love of him and others to prepare us to be with him in blessed happiness forever. Perhaps it is a return to the sacraments after an absence, perhaps it is the little push we need to make our confession or perhaps it is simply the little nudge in our heart to pray. And we should snap them up when they come since each of these little moments is a breaking in of the divine into our heart and soul, if we would only let him pitch his tent there.

Our Advent preparation is a time of making ready, of accepting God’s graces which draw us ever closer to him, which fit us for heaven. Perhaps if we do, even those routines each day can become moments of realising that God is with us in it all. The County Fermanagh poet, Patrick Kavanagh, had the gift of seeing God in the ordinary, and how this very season on which we have embarked with its penance and prayer can make even the banal things a place where we are ready to meet our God:

We have tested and tasted too much, lover —
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.