(Readings: Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.)
Introduction to Mass
There is a story about a teacher who asked her class 'what is the big book that tells us that Christmas is coming?' One small boy stuck his hand in the air and said, 'Please miss, the Argos catalogue'! This year we have been reminded again, in all sorts of other ways, how significant the Christmas period has become in terms of the trade cycle and the annual profits of the big stores.
We escape all that when we enter the Advent liturgy. The readings this week concentrate our attention on God's plan of salvation, the coming of the Messiah, and the imminent Incarnation of God's word.
The prayer over the Advent wreath follows (see homily for 1st Sunday in Advent) and four candles on the wreath are lit.
God is with us
Since the nineteenth century the great slogan of atheists and secular thinkers has been the slogan, 'God is dead'. What they meant by that, of course, is that belief in God no longer exercises a significant influence in the lives of most men and women, or in the life of society as a whole - in our part of the world at any rate. The message of today's liturgy, on the other hand, is the opposite: 'God-is-with-us', God is alive and among us - a prospect anticipated by the prophet Isaiah (as we saw in the first reading) and eventually fulfilled, or realised, in the birth of Christ.
Again, in more recent years, we've got used to hearing people talk about our society being a 'post-Christian society'. That means that generally speaking people no longer rely on the Christian religion to provide their outlook on life or their moral principles. Whereas we just heard St. Paul, in the second reading, declaring that the Christian communities have no less than an 'apostolic mission' to preach the Christian faith to all the pagan nations.
So there's a question raised by today's liturgy, it seems to me: what hope is there of the Church carrying on this mission, or even celebrating its own belief in the good news of salvation, in a situation where, to all intents and purposes, 'God is dead', and where the Christian faith is perceived as a failure and a relic of the past?
The age of anxiety
As always, it's useful to look at thngs in their historical context. Forty or even thirty years ago - and it would even be true of the time when I was in secondary school - the tidal wave of the Second Vatican Council was washing over us, and there was a mood of great optimism in the Church. All the talk was of the Church opening up to the modern world, affirming moral values which were compatible with the gospel, and co-operating with non-believers in the great task of building a better and more humane world.
On the secular side not everybody was happy with the idea of religion jumping belatedly on the bandwagon of progress. Good old-fashioned secularists thought that Christianity would only get in the way of the liberal and tolerant society they wanted to create.
But for most other people, and especially for the young people and the students at the time, there was the idea that you could bridge over all differences with a vague commitment to peace and harmony and love. 'All you need is love', as the song went.
Forty or so years on I think we can say that history has proved there was something shallow and naive in believing that those vague and sentimental values could change the world in any radical way. Things have moved on and the bright new future still hasn't materialised. In fact, almost the only feature of that time which has survived and got stronger is the consumer economy, and the material affluence which was beginning to spread at the start of the sixties.
There's a book which you might have seen by the psychologist Oliver James, called Britain on the Couch. The subtitle of the book is something like, 'why people were happier 50 years ago even though they had a lot less'. We wouldn't have to agree with everything that James says, but he does put his finger on something which a lot of people have observed for themselves and feel for themselves - that today there's something anxious and brittle and harassed about the quality of their lives. People often appear now to be less tolerant and forgiving and compassionate, not more. There's a lot of frustration and depression and plain unhappiness.
So apart from anything else, the fact that we're living in a post-Christian society isn't the most significant thing. That was already true, even before the phrase was invented. What seems now to have been completely defeated isn't our religious faith - it's all those non-religious hopes people had that society could be improved and made fairer and more just and all the rest of it, in purely secular terms.
The Church's prophetic calling
In these changed and in many ways less hopeful circumstances, our role - the role of the Church - is changed as well. Of course we should still co-operate with like-minded groups of people to achieve common aims wherever we can, as we were supposed to do in the sixties and seventies.
But now, the way I see it, there's far more of a need for the Catholic Church to play the role of the prophet in our society - the lone voice crying out in the wilderness, and 'crying out' with a critical voice. It's not enough to do what some of the fundamentalist churches do - demand that everyone should start believing in God and become a Christian or else society is doomed. Reality is more complicated than that.
Pope John Paul has often put his finger on the important point: that in a culture like ours, the values of consumerism lead people away from the truth about what a dignified human life consists of. And so for Christians, a genuine prophetic role means confronting those values with our own alternative vision, which we draw from the Bible and from the Church's long tradition of moral and spiritual reflection.
See - Judge - Act
The way we have to approach that role, I think, is to do three things, along the lines of the slogan that Cardinal Cardijn gave to the Christian Worker Movement, before the War. His slogan was 'See - Judge - Act'.
First of all we have to see. We have to observe accurately what's going on. What are the tendencies that work in favour of human dignity and the common good, and what are the trends that work against those goals? Then we have to judge. We have to interpret and analyse what's going on from the standpoint of our distinctive Christian commitments and principles.
And last of all, we have to act: as the Pope has said many times, we have to form our church communities as pockets of resistance to the values of affluence and consumerism.
Maybe I could suggest where that kind of exercise might lead us. There are two areas of concern that I've got in mind.
One is that spiritually, the great defect of the 'affluent society' is that it doesn't provide people with any meaningful purpose to their lives. According to the marketing people and the advertisers we're supposed to step back in wonder at an economy that gives us sixteen different kinds of goat's cheese at Sainsbury's, sun-dried tomato ciabatta bread and all the rest of it.
But at the same time as we have all this vast availability of goods, the other side of the coin is that society has turned into much more of a jungle - it's become much more competitive and pressured and unpleasant to live in.
Some people do all right in this kind of atmosphere. But the most sensitive people suffer. The lack of care and trust are destructive. Family relationships come under pressure. Earlier on in the year there was a study which reported that record numbers of children are being prescribed anti-depressants, or even committing suicide, in spite of the fact that, for the most part, materially they don't lack for anything. So even among the people who are well-off, there are indications of sickness and malaise.
But of course the second thing is that not everyone is well-off. As we all know, in the last few years the gap between rich and poor has got wider, not narrower, in the whole world and in our own country. And to my mind, what is wrong about that isn't mainly the economic aspect, the inequality of incomes. It's the other, sometimes more hidden, aspects: poor health, shorter life expectancy, lack of educational opportunities, inferior housing, all the things that go along with material poverty.
And on top of that, poverty breeds a kind of ignorance and vindictiveness. That was true in the nineteenth century and its just as true now. When we talk about the Church's option for the poor, it doesn't mean - for example - that we have to go along with, or make excuses for, the kind of ignorance or brutality or 'anti-social behaviour' that mark the most deprived areas of the country.
But it does mean exposing the real causes, in those kinds of areas, for the high levels of anger and violent emotion, and it means directing attention to the real targets. As I say, it means carrying out this prophetic exercise of 'see-judge-act'.
God's grace the source of hope
Since the start of Advent I've been trying to say that part of the meaning of our Christian hope is that human nature isn't fossilised into patterns of greed and selfishness and exploitation. When we're open to the influence of God's grace, all that changes. Then, the facets of human nature which emerge are our potential for friendship, for co-operation, for solidarity and sympathy with each other, and especially with those who are weak or in need.
Today it's the so-called 'secular society' - our modern 'successful' consumer society - which is exhausted and in crisis. It has reached an impasse. And it's up to us to put these values and principles and hopes back on the agenda, as the Church faces up to the challenges of continuing its 'apostolic mission' in the opening years of the 21st century.