One of my oldest friends, who used to work with recovering alcoholics, told me that one of the most common reasons for drinking to excess is to counteract the feeling of depression. People who abuse alcohol generally feel sad, or find it difficult to talk to other people, and alcohol has the effect of raising their spirits and making it easier for them to live with themselves if they live alone, or to live with others when they are in company. The only trouble is that the effects of alcohol are short-lived and can lead to even greater depression and still more drinking. No wonder Saint Luke, in today’s gospel, warns us against drunkenness and debauchery. The wrong use of drink, drugs and other unhealthy pursuits, makes people insensitive to the finer and more precious things in life.
Part of the painful process of growing up is learning to control our moods. Alcohol and drugs are just some of the many ways in which people attempt to exercise such control in their lives. But they are the wrong ways for, in the end, they are doomed to failure. If we are going to successfully control our moods, it is essential, in the first instance, to accept them as part of ourselves. Moods of helplessness, fear, depression, or even exhilaration, are an essential part of our humanity as we grow in our understanding of the problems and sufferings of ourselves and of others, and we are drawn to unite ourselves with those who need help.
Believe it or not, the Church too has her moods. They are an essential part of her personality as she grows in the life of Christ. The Church’s mood of desolation in Lent and Holy Week, gives way to exhilaration at Easter. And then at Pentecost, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, there is the mood of confidence, coupled with a certain apprehension at the Church’s renewed responsibility to bring Christ to the world.
Today we begin the season of Advent. And the Church’s mood is set for us in the readings of the Mass: and it is a mood of expectation; something is going to happen. What that ‘something’ is can only be described in symbols; and “the signs in the sun and moon and stars” to which Our Lord refers, feebly reflect the splendour of that day when the Son of Man will “come in a cloud with power and great glory”. Something is going to happen. God is coming. And for many people in our world today, people who have ignored or rejected God, this can only mean the ‘bewilderment’ and ‘fear’ which Our Lord speaks of.
But for Christ’s followers the truth that God is coming brings neither ‘fear’ nor ‘bewilderment’. Rather it brings ‘confidence’. We can “stand with confidence before him” because we have anticipated his coming. We have made the necessary preparations.
God’s coming in grace is primarily what we look forward to in Advent; and it’s not accompanied by terrible signs. On the contrary, it is the gentle and quiet action of God as he not only looks lovingly upon us, but actually shares his love with us. The word grace means ‘gift’, and it is the gift of God’s own life we receive during this season of Advent. We might compare it with the smile that wins our confidence and draws from us a smile in return, even when we are in the worst of moods. We may resist it; for God’s smile is resistible, such is the power of our free will. But the penalty for resisting is to remain in our misery. If we have only the confidence to allow God’s smile to win us to himself, only then will we become a new person.Advent is the time when we prepare to receive the gift of God’s grace. It is the ‘gift-giving’ season, completed in our own sharing of gifts at Christmas.
But perhaps we are not in the mood for such a celebration. Some people may prefer to remain in a state of dis-grace, using alcohol or drugs to keep them ‘high’. Or maybe we are unwilling to soften our heart of stone and love our neighbour as Christ has commanded us – not just in word but in deed. If we are unwilling to put into practice the basics of our faith, then how can we hope to change ourselves, and hold our heads high when the Lord comes?
Such attitudes miss the whole point of this season of Advent. We cannot hope to change ourselves. We cannot overcome our dis-grace by our own efforts alone. We need to be alert to those moments of grace, and especially to those high-points of God’s coming in prayer and in the liturgy and in our celebration of the sacraments together.
We need to be alert at these moments for, because of their very quietness, we are liable to overlook their significance, just as the birth of our Saviour was overlooked at Bethlehem. As the gospel warns us, we must “stay awake”, we must remain vigilant. And then we will be changed, not by our own power, but by the power of God; and we will, in the words of the second reading, begin “to make more and more progress in the kind of life that we are meant to live”.
And in our everyday living our moods will continue to remain part of us. But they will begin to coincide with the Church’s moods. And they will begin to bring us security and happiness, not only in this life, but also in eternity.