I always think it is great that Christmas comes to us in the depths of winter when it is so miserable here. Outside it is dark and dreary, but then we begin to light candles, put up decorations and the Christmas tree. Advent is meant to be a season of hope, and I think perhaps we need that hope more than ever this year. All we are hearing around us is bad news and that can really bring us down.
For the three years I was studying in Rome (2002-05)I was always struck at how much more positive my own outlook was. I think it was partly because I wasn’t all the time hearing bad news. I often heard others priests say the same thing, that it was a relief to get out of Ireland sometimes, because our thinking—and I suppose they were talking about the Church in particular—always seemed to be so negative. We were only hearing about what we hadn’t got, and how awful everything was. The truth is that if we have a roof over our heads, our health and enough to eat we are doing alright. Now hopefully we’ll have a lot more than the bare minimum too, but the point is that we don’t actually need an awful lot to be content.
Recently I was talking to a friend of mine who is on the verge of losing her house because she has no job at the moment and is finding it very difficult to pay the mortgage. She was telling me that usually at Christmas she bought herself a new coat and a few other things to celebrate, but this year she can’t afford to do any of that. But she said that she also realised that it really doesn’t matter if she can’t buy any of these things and I think it helped her to realise how much she actually has. If we have our health and a few people around us whom we love, then we have an awful lot.
When I visit people who are dying I am often struck by the fact that the only thing they usually want is to have someone with them if possible, and if it is a loved one it is even better. All the other things that they worked hard for during their lives disappear into insignificance. Very little really matters when it comes down to it.
Perhaps the economic pressure that a lot of people are under right now will help us to discover what is really important. If we have the basics and a few people around whom we love, then we actually have an awful lot. Everything else is a bonus.
Finally in the Gospel today, people are asking John what should they do to prepare for the coming of Christ and he tells them to 'be content with what you have.' It is a simple but powerful message. Then when he is asked if he is the Christ, and he says no, he goes on to paint a pretty scary picture of what the Christ will be like. He will be someone great, someone immensely powerful who will baptise with fire and the Spirit of God. He is the one who will bring true justice and noone will escape his hand. But what is most important is that this one who is coming, who is so powerful and to be feared, is coming to help us. He is on our side, coming to show us which way to go and to tell us again and again, ‘don’t be afraid because I am with you.’