The First Sunday of Advent
27 November 2011
My dear friends, this evening’s Mass is the Mass of the first Sunday of Advent, and with it we begin a new year of liturgical worship in our Church. Straight away the Word of God, in the readings from Scripture, challenges us. Isaiah cries out to God, as he laments at how the people have strayed from his ways – “Lord, you are our Father, We are the clay, you are the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” He begs God to return to save his people “who are like men unclean”, who have all withered like leaves.”
The second reading is more reassuring. St. Paulthanks God for all the graces we have received through Jesus Christ, which will keep us steady and without blame until the last day, the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel reading sounds a note of warning telling us to be on our guard and to stay awake because we do not know when the master is coming and he must not find us asleep.
Most of our lives have a sense of stability. We get on with our work and our living and we plan from week to week and year to year. We act as if things will continue to be broadly as they are. Even a little reflection can save us from fooling ourselves. In one of his poems Seamus Heaney writes :
We hoarded the fresh berries in the byre
but when the bath was filled we found a fur
a rat-grey fungus
I felt like crying it wasn’t fair
Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not.
Things do not stay the same. Everything changes, decays. We move inexorably through the seasons of our lives. The Gospel reminds us that when the knock comes its over and it’s too late to make changes. We must not sleep on the job. If changes need to be made they have to be made in time.
Henry Viscardi was born with stumps rather than fully developed legs. He learned to walk well on his stumps and was able to live a fairly normal life except for the prejudices and unkind comments of the few, which hurt him a lot. His mother helped him cope with this and kept telling him that he had a place and a purpose in life.
He did rather well in school and eventually graduated fromFordhamUniversity. After years of trying to walk like a normal person, Henry had damaged the skin and tissue of his stumps. He knew that without prosthetic legs he would have to use a wheelchair. But no prosthetis could be found to fit him. Doctor after doctor said it was hopeless.
He eventually met a German doctor who committed himself to inventing a prosthesis that would work for Henry. It took months, but the doctor delivered on his promise and came up with a workable pair of legs. Henry could at last look and walk like a normal man. When Henry went to pay for his legs the doctor said to him, “No bill. One day, if you make a difference for another human being – the difference between a life dependent on charity and one rich in dignity and self-sufficiency, – then our account will be squared.”
Henry joined the Red Cross during World War 11, and he dedicated himself to helping amputees. When the war ended, he saw the difficulties many disabled veterans had in getting jobs. He gathered a group of sympathetic business men and set up Just One Break (JOB), an organisation that finds jobs for people with disabilities.
Next, he set up another organisation – Abilities Incorporated – with the same goal. That was nearly fifty years ago. Today Abilities Incorporated has grown into National Centre for Disabilities Services which runs a school for children with disabilities. All of their efforts are aimed at educating, empowering and rehabilitating those with physical disabilities. Henry himself says today (what his mother told him as a despondent child) “I can’t help but believe that the Lord had a plan for my life that made me the way I was and let me become who I am.”
My dear friends, I am relating this story to you and to myself in response to the Word of God in today’s Mass Readings. When the Lord cautions us to stay awake, how do we respond in terms of how we live our lives and the choices we make? Do we, like the little boy in Seamus Heaney’s poem, “hoard the fresh berries in the byrne” on the understanding that they will be there for us when we need them, only to come back and find them inedible for the fungus that has covered them? Do we set our hearts on what is passing and treat it as if it could never be tainted by rust or decay or lose its value? Do we become hoarders or barn builders or pearl merchants and in what do we trade? Maybe to bring it down to practicalities – what do we teach our children?
As we begin another year of worship and move towards remembering the birth of Christ, we remind ourselves that he came to save us from going astray and from worshiping false Gods. In shaping the clay, he has told us to concentrate on what lasts and to give the passing no more than the attention it deserves. If we have based our living on recognising and serving the potter and in loving our neighbour as he has shown us. If we put the emphasis on giving, then we do not have to fear the knock, because the invitation will be to come in and savour what has been prepared for us.
+Liam S. MacDaid
26 November 2011