Faith Matters

Fr Gerry McFlynn: Advent and the call to conversion

Advent is the time God gives us to say 'Yes' to following him, says Fr Gerry McFlynn

The lights of Christmas trees and decorations should help to remind us that Christ is God's light to the world, shattering the darkness of mistrust and mis-understanding
Fr Gerry McFlynn

ADVENT is Lent's poor relation when it comes to abstinence and fasting. The season is no longer penitential in the way Lent continues to be.

Joyful hope, rather than penance, is its keynote. Nevertheless, like Lent, it is a good time to undergo a change of heart and to make a new and determined advance in our spiritual journey.

More than any other liturgical season, Advent is the time of hope and light is its most powerful symbol.

The lights of Christmas trees and decorations should help to remind us that Christ is God's light to the world, shattering the darkness of mistrust and misunderstanding.

These days, we almost have to make a special effort to find place for such reflection in the midst of the frenzy of shopping, decorating, card-writing and other activities that fill the so-called 'holiday season'.

Advent, marking as it does the start of the Church year, begins appropriately with a call to conversion: "Let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light" (Romans 13:12).

These words were decisive in the conversion of St Augustine as we know from his Confessions. Their note of urgency should not be lost on us too. They can also change our lives.

I remember reading somewhere that the term "conversion" appears, in one form or another, more than a thousand times in the Bible. And wherever it appears it means something quite specific. The New Testament word (metanoein) means to turn around and proceed in a new direction. In short, the process of conversion means to become again who we once were and to remember to whom we really belonged.

And our guide on this journey of conversion is none other than John the Baptist. In many ways he is the ideal companion, at once austere and joyful. His own life was penitential in the extreme, but there was nothing of sadness in it.

He rejoiced to hear the voice of the Bridegroom. He is the one to stir us out of our complacency with his rallying cry of: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand."

In our world today, too many people still live in darkness, especially in these Covid times. It is our task to bring the light of Christ into the dark places of their lives and help give them hope again.

That's how Jesus saw his mission and what he wanted his followers to do. He took the words of the prophet Isaiah and put them into practice.

"The spirit of the Lord is upon me, for he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" (Luke 4:18-19).

That's what he spent his ministry doing and it's what he expects his followers, you and me, to do. Well, we may not be able to restore people's sight, free the prisoners, etc., but there are many things we can do such as being more caring and compassionate towards people, giving them encouragement and hope and helping in so many practical ways those not coping well with life's problems.

Advent is the time God gives us to say 'Yes' to following him. It is a time to change, to leave behind all that weighs us down and holds us back.

It is a time to repent, to put right what has gone wrong, to begin a new future guided by the light of Christ, instead of the transitory shades of our own desires and thoughts. In short, it is the time for heeding the call to conversion.

Over the coming days and weeks, with cards, emails, texts and phonecalls, we will be wishing people a Happy Christmas. I think that the secret of a Happy Christmas is getting Advent right. A good Advent makes for a happier Christmas. So have a good Advent.

Fr Gerry McFlynn is a Down and Connor priest and project manager for the Irish Council for Prisoners Overseas. He is based in London with the Irish Chaplaincy.

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