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First Sunday of Advent

The Lord be with you

One of the ways you can tell a culture is by how its members greet each other. In southern Germany and Austria you will be greeted with Gr├╝ss Gott - God greet you. In Irish, people will greet you by saying, 'God and Mary be with you !' No Irishman can dare to discount the importance of mothers.

The answer, should you ever be addressed in that fashion, is 'God, Mary and Patrick be with you!' As St Teresa of Avila said, the company of God's friends is a good way of keeping near to him.

In the Church we also have a greeting: Dominus vobiscum - The Lord be with you - to which the answer is Et cum spiritu tuo - And with your spirit. Our God is a God who is present, with us, with his people.

Catholicism, in its infinite eccentricity, has a special liturgical season to draw this to our attention: Advent. The language we use, the symbols we employ, the readings we hear, are all about a God who comes.

Of course, he does not come from afar, he stands at the door and knocks. It is not he who is far from us, but we who are absent from him. We are absent not in terms of distance but by desire. We are not anchored to where we are, in Christ, by our desire. We have allowed our desire to carry us elsewhere, to estrange us from our own heart.

That is what Advent is all about, it is not a journey elsewhere, but a pilgrimage into the deserts of our own hearts.

Sometimes when children want to test if they are really loved at home, they go through a ritual of running away. They pack their little suit cases, present themselves to their parents, deliver a farewell discourse worthy of Socrates and make for the door, hoping they will not have to go through it, because they have not the slightest idea what to do next.

In a way the Church goes through a similar ritual every year. It pretends a distance between itself and its Lord, a distance that has, in reality, been bridged by the love of God in Christ. It reminds itself of what the distance might have been in order to rejoice more fully in that love.

How does Christ stand and knock at the door of our cold-hearted world, on the door of our consciences? In the form of his Church. This flawed instrument, still time-bound and on the way, is the way in which the glorified Christ calls to all that was created through him to return to the rock from which it was hewn.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, it is Christ himself who is enselved in his members by the action of the Holy Spirit, and the believer

Acts in God's eye what in God's eye he is

Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men's faces.

Christ plays in more than ten thousand places in Catholic Churches throughout the world today, as the Eucharist is celebrated, the drama of divine love.

All this is brought about by the Holy Spirit, who plays upon us like, as the Fathers tell us, the gentle wind that steals across the strings of a lyre causing it to sing the rhythms of eternity: in this way we sing the song of the Lord on alien soil.

As Hopkins once preached:

That is Christ playing at me and me playing at Christ, only that is no play but truth; That is Christ being me and me being Christ.

The Church is not Christ but Christ is the Church. In the sacrament of confirmation we receive a certain likeness to Christ, we are anointed, we become other Christs, called to play, to play the truth. All truth is grounded in Christ, all beauty belongs to him and is offered back to him in the great sacrifice and must rest with him:

give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.

as Hopkins wrote.

To be a member of the Church is to celebrate this liturgy, the liturgy of praise and thanksgiving, to give beauty back to God, to offer one's life as a liturgy of praise and thanksgiving; to become a sign of God's presence and a witness to hope.

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