Homily for the First Sunday of Advent
Readings: Isaiah 63: 16-17, 64: 1, 3-8; Psalm 79 (80): 2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1: 3-9; Mark 13: 33-37
At St Canice’s, Kings Cross/Elizabeth Bay
29 November 2020
On Friday, after months of lockdown, we in Victoria recorded 28 days straight of no new COVID cases. The country is now all but COVID-free and today is the first Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of the new liturgical year, when our churches are opening up around the nation, we are able to come together to pray, and we are making a fresh start, putting behind us a liturgical year which has included horrific bushfires, the global pandemic and a crushing economic recession. We now spend four weeks preparing for the coming of Jesus at Christmas, filled with apprehension, hope and expectation of things to come, hopefully including much better things to come, though we know not what or how.
In today’s Gospel, we hear the conclusion of the apocalyptic Chapter 13 in Mark’s gospel. As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said, “Look Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!” Jesus replies, “Not one stone here will be left on another, every one will be thrown down.” The writer of this Gospel and his audience know this prediction to be true. Why? Because it has already occurred. They have fresh and traumatic memories of the destruction of the Temple by the Roman armies at the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Prior to this, the Temple has been the sacred centrepoint of Jewish worship. Now their world is collapsing. This is a time of traumatic uncertainty. All the old certainties have gone.
Four disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, ask Jesus: “Tell us when these things will happen? And what will be the sign that they are all about to be fulfilled?” Jesus warns them that nation will rise against nation; brother will betray brother; it will be a dreadful time for pregnant women and nursing mothers; there will be false prophets and false messiahs; no one knows the hour, not even the Son: only the Father knows. He has one simple command for them: “So keep watch.”
Peter, James and John later accompany Jesus into the garden at Gethsemane after the last supper. He tells them: “Remain here and stay alert.” He returns to find them asleep: “Couldn’t you stay awake one hour?” He does it again and they fall asleep again. He does it a third time and they fall asleep again. He returns and with a touch of exasperation tells them: “Enough of that. The hour has come.”
The scripture scholars John Donohue and Daniel Harrington tells us: Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel “uses the conventions of apocalyptic to address Christians who have undergone suffering for the name of Jesus and can expect even more. These people constituted a tiny minority in the Roman empire and necessarily placed their hope of vindication in God. In the apocalyptic vision they found a reason for Jesus’ suffering and their own (‘it is necessary’) as well as a promise that their suffering would soon end in glory (as they believed Jesus’ suffering did). The language of Jewish apocalyptic—the kingdom of God, Messiah and Son of Man, resurrection, the last judgment—provided many of their most important theological ideas. The conviction that the world would be transformed and that they would reign with the risen Jesus in glory gave them a horizon of hope against which they could interpret their present sufferings, and the insistence on constant vigilance helped them to find significance and ethical direction in their actions in the present.”
Where do we find the horizon of hope when the magnificent buildings of the international economy and the massive stones around us are being destroyed and when there is no longer a shared narrative about last things in the community of which we are members?
Michael Bowden was a fine footballer, a great teacher, a one-time seminarian, a loving husband, father and grandfather who spent over 30 years in and around Alice Springs as a member of the local Catholic parish and working amongst the local Aboriginal peoples. When diagnosed with motor neurone disease, he pursued a PhD while continuing to care for his wife with dementia. In the final stages of the disease, he worked with his daughter Magella and others to transform his thesis into a book entitled Unbreakable Rock. Michael died on Holy Saturday and the book saw the light of day this month.
In the book he tells the story of the unbreakable rock:
“One evening in the middle of 1988, I had dropped a bunch of kids home in Charles Creek Camp. I was exiting through the creek when a tall, bearded Arrente man, whom I did not know, hailed me. I stopped and he asked me for a lift into town. As he got in, I heard the sound of dynamite blasting. The site for a new Hungry Jacks outlet was being laid out directly behind the Oil Depot and opposite Beaurepaires. My passenger heard the blast too and said to me: ‘They will never break that rock! It’s sacred one! It’s too strong!’ I had heard of the controversy over the location of the fast food outlet on a sacred site and knew that there were objections to it that had not been upheld.”
The Hungry Jacks outlet was subsequently built. I remember once driving a troop carrier full of Aboriginal people around town after a church conference there. They were visitors from well out of town. The first place they wanted to go was Hungry Jacks. Back on country, everyone had heard about the new Hungry Jacks in Alice Springs. In his book, Bowden writes, “I realise now that the old Arrente man I picked up was right – they couldn’t break that rock. He was offering a metaphor. He meant that the whitefella’s bulldozers and dynamite could well smash the rock, but they could never extinguish the eternal spirit of this sacred place.”
In his book, Bowden outlines a modern phenomenon which “is the fruit of twin streams of tradition. One is the Arrente consciousness, and the other modern Catholicism”. Back in 1996, Michael delivered a homily at the wedding of friends Nicole and Damien Johnson out at Honeymoon Gap which he described as “God’s special church”, “a sacred place” and a “citadel of God’s creation”. He offered this prayer:
“May the Lord of this Land, the God of our Faith, the Master of the Universe, the Creator and Spirit of the Dreaming be with you every day. May this Spirit of Love and compassion grow in you as you grow in love together. May it empower you both to continue to live with passion and power and love and zeal to make this part of the world an even more wonderful place because you have been here and loved here and played here and carried us all with you. And may your love never end.”
The idea of an Unbreakable Rock took hold with Michael Bowden as he witnessed so much destruction and loss around him in Central Australia. This past year, we have seen so many massive stones and magnificent building blocks of our pre-COVID world dismantled or destroyed, and on epic proportions at places like Juukan Gorge. But our horizon of hope is the unbreakable rock of the sacred in our lives. As Jesus puts it: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” “It is like a person going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with a particular task, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch.” No matter what our apprehensions and uncertainties, we each have our allocated tasks – in family, in relationships, in the workplace, in the community, in Church, and in State. Advent is a time for recommitting to the daily tasks at hand, while staying awake, recalling that the devastation of this past year finds parallels in the apocalyptic events of today’s Gospel from Mark and the first reading from Isaiah where the prophet addresses Yahweh: “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.” “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
During the week, the US Supreme Court struck down some New York restrictions placing strict limits on the numbers of people who could attend religious services during the pandemic. Justice Gorsuch observed: “The only explanation for treating religious places differently seems to be a judgment that what happens there just isn’t as ‘essential’ as what happens in secular spaces. Indeed, the Governor is remarkably frank about this: In his judgment laundry and liquor, travel and tools, are all ‘essential’ while traditional religious exercises are not. That is exactly the kind of discrimination the First Amendment forbids.”
Gorsuch went on to say: “Even if the Constitution has taken a holiday during this pandemic, it cannot become a sabbatical.” Our faith and sacred duties do not take a holiday during time of pandemic. They are the essentials of life, the unbreakable rock holding us in place and supporting us while so much collapses around us.
So let’s keep watch together during Advent. And remember, no matter what bulldozers or dynamite are brought in to play: “They will never break that rock! It’s sacred one! It’s too strong!”
Fr Frank Brennan SJ is the Rector of Newman College, Melbourne, the Distinguished Fellow of the P M Glynn Institute, Australian Catholic University, and the former CEO of Catholic Social Services Australia (CSSA).
 Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, St Pauls, 2008, p. xvi
 Michael Bowden, Unbreakable Rock, Allela Books, Churchill, Victoria, 2020, p. 17
 Ibid, p. 20
 Ibid, p. 246
 Ibid, p. 251