Sheep: a challenge for Advent

Photo by George Gastin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

How many of those reading this blog post have ever had a close encounter with a sheep? Here we are never far from the sight or sound of them, which makes the numerous references to them in scripture and the Rule of St Benedict both lively and topical. The straying sheep; the sheep on the wrong side of the hedge or fence; the wounded sheep, attacked by a dog its owner failed to control; the sheep that is ill or having difficulty lambing — these are all well-known to us and what I tend to think of when reading today’s Mass readings, Isaiah 40. 1–11 or Matthew 18. 12–14. Admittedly, the haunting tones of Consolamini, consolamini or even Handel’s Comfort, ye tend to provide the background sound-track, but it is the muckiness and smell of real sheep in real fields that I think of first. Which is just as well because we can’t dismiss the sheep image of today’s readings with sentimental visions of fluffy white lambs gathered around a spotless manger. We’re lost, wounded, in need of a Saviour.

One of the great challenges of Advent is to acknowledge that we really do need a Saviour. We all have a tendency to favour the DIY approach to salvation, seeing Advent more as a count-down to Christmas than as a season of waiting and joyful anticipation for something and someone that can only come to us as sheer gift. The late Thomas Merton, who died on this day in 1968, never tired of proclaiming our neediness and the graciousness of the God who stoops down to us. He knew that we are apt to become uncomfortable when confronted with the realities of the present and often seek refuge in a past of our own making. That is to be sheep-like in a bad sense. Instead, we must be bold and strike out in new directions, not lost, not wounded, but following the Shepherd of the flock. Time is not given to us to keep a faith we once had but to acquire a faith we need now. The faith we need now: that is what we must seek this Advent.

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The Wilderness of our Hearts

A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness
a way for the Lord.’

Those words are a clarion-call to prepare a way for the Lord in the wilderness of our hearts. It is easy to get side-tracked by the duties of every day and all the busy-ness of preparing for Christmas. We can end up wondering whether we have any focus at all. We try, of course we do, but as often as not we are left with a vague unease that we are not attentive, not really present to the Lord. Advent seems to be passing us by. Would it encourage you to know that that is exactly what Advent is meant to do in our lives — show us how much we need saving? There is no such thing as D.I.Y. salvation.

So, today, we are back in the desert, not under the scorching sun but in the cold, bleak desert of night and darkness that constitutes so much of our interior life. Yet it is here, in this wilderness, that we must prepare a way for the Lord. We know about levelling the little molehills of pride and self-sufficiency that dot our interior landscape, but what about filling in those valleys of dissatisfaction and fearfulness that are also present? If that seems an impossibility, have we forgotten that we do not act alone?

He is like a shepherd feeding his flock,
gathering lambs in his arms,
holding them against his breast
and leading to their rest the mother ewes.

Yes, the Lord himself is the way. He both invites us to make a way for him and creates the way within us.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail