One of the essential things about this season of Advent is its emphasis on the need for us to become more awake to the presence of God. God is always with us whether we realise it or not. That is the great Christmas message. Learning to realise that presence and thus to hear what God is saying is our Advent task, which is why so often we use the words in Advent “Come Lord Jesus” Our 1st reading today (Isaiah 7:10-14) tells us of Ahaz who did not want to listen to God. Offered a sign, he said “No” and made the excuse that it would put God to the test. In contrast, in our Gospel today (Matt 1:18-24) Joseph is prepared to listen, even through his dreams, and so is ready to play his part in the great mystery that is God coming to us, God with us, “Emmanuel”.
Ahaz didn’t want to listen to God because he was actually too busy doing his own thing, which included killing his son as a sacrifice – read 1 Kings 16 if you don’t believe me – so no wonder he didn’t want to hear what God might be saying to him! I guess none of us are evil as Ahaz, but we are certainly often so busy with our lives that we hardly ever find time to stop and look and listen for what God might be saying to us, and asking us to do. Perhaps you know that poem?
What is this life if full of care, We have no time to stand and stare. (W.H.Davies)
This, of course, is what the best kind of prayer is. Not rattling onto God about our problems and concerns, although of course God does care about them and is happy to listen. No, the best prayer is when we stop, and in the silence, in the space between words, listen to God. Now I say the space between words because silence doesn’t have to be empty of sound. Many people find complete silence over a long period pretty difficult which, I suppose, is why so few people come to Holy Hour on Saturday night, or to our Annual Day of Prayer.
So today I want to encourage you to find those small moments of silence in the midst of life. We often sing of the silence of Bethlehem – “Silent Night” or “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given.” – but actually, outside that stable, all would have been bustle and noise, wouldn’t it? That’s why there was no room in the Inn! Even inside the stable, Mary and Joseph would have been talking to one another, and later to those visiting shepherds. The silence then was the silence within the words.
This is something that we should be practising every time we come to Mass. The words, the prayers we know well, and those that are new each week, are not meant to be simply listened to on the surface. That’s why the Church has been encouraging us priests recently to provide more silent pauses to help us with this. So you will notice that I say “Let us pray” and then stop for a moment before I say the prayer. It is also why we priests are not meant to gabble the Mass at high speed, (and neither are you), but to go at a steady pace that allows us more easily to absorb the words and pray beneath and within them. We priests are also supposed to slow down even more when we say the words of Jesus, “This is my Body”.. “This is my Blood”, again to allow the significance of what is happening to sink beneath the surface of our minds.
This is also why our readers are meant to mark properly the full stops and commas in the texts they read to us, to really pause before they go on, and also to stop at the end of the reading and pause for a moment before saying “The Word of the Lord.” Yes, readers, please try to do this, because the silence between the words you read is as important, if not more important, than the words themselves.
I thought I would leave you today with one of my favourite poems, “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas.
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.