Called to be Counter-Cultural: Come Into The Light and Stay Awake!
1st Sunday Advent 2016
In today’s world, as in the past, some religions and people of faith, seeing the evil and problems in the world, reject the culture around them and live cut-off in isolation from it so that they won’t be infected by it. One thinks, for example of the Amish people. Other religions and people of faith happily and readily go along with whatever might be the prevailing ideology and common practice in the culture around them. One thinks for example of some Christians in Russia, Germany, and Italy who went along with the Twentieth Century Totalitarian Regimes of Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. We know how that turned out!
Neither of these two approaches to the world around us come to any good. The first does nothing to make the world a better place and the second contributes to making the world a worse place. Followers of Jesus Christ are called to walk a different path. We are aware of Saint Paul’s warning to Christians in his letter to the Romans: “Do not conform yourself to the world around you.” (12:2) But we are also familiar with Jesus’ parable where he compares his followers to the pinch of leaven that makes the dough rise to make bread indicating that our influence in the world can lift it and make it a better place, a part of his kingdom.
This attitude of Christians to the world around them is well-summed up in the expression “counter cultural”. We live in this world with everyone else and we immerse ourselves in those parts of our culture which are good and wholesome, but we are discerning and make judgements about the culture in the light of Jesus’ life and teachings.
As a result at times we will not immerse ourselves in the culture; we will sometimes reject the trends and ideologies that our media say we must follow if we don’t want to be branded as imbeciles, dinosaurs, bigots or worse; we will not do certain things or engage in certain practices just because everybody else does. Being counter-cultural means we are in the same pool of water as everybody else, but we will sometimes swim against the current. Being counter-cultural is how the early Christians converted the mighty Roman Empire and beyond.
It seems to me that Advent is a particular time of year that we are called to be counter cultural. In the lead up to Christmas the culture and people around us seem to focus their efforts even more than usual on shopping, indulgence, gluttony, partying, and instant gratification. At this very time Jesus and his Church are calling us to be sober, vigilant and patient. For Advent is not the season for indulging; it’s the time for preparing. Preparing not just for a joyful celebration come the 25th December, but preparing to finally meet the one whom we long to see; preparing to finally meet face to face Jesus Christ, the face of the Father’s Mercy; preparing to meet Jesus who says that we will be like him when we finally see him as he is.
This is why our Readings in Advent focus our attention on the final coming of Jesus Christ. He who came as one of us in the child at Bethlehem will come again in glory for all to see, and he will come to me on my last day for me to see, and he comes down from Heaven to us in the celebration of every Mass and in every Holy Communion. Advent calls us to live in constant readiness to meet and welcome Jesus Christ who constantly comes to us.
If I have not been living in this state of readiness but just been floating along with the culture around me, too tired or too scared to swim against the current which I know is taking us in the wrong direction, what can I do? Our Readings suggest two simple things.
First, in the Second Reading Saint Paul says we must choose the light over the darkness. It’s time he says to give up all the things we prefer to do under cover of the dark and come into the light where we are happy for all that we do to be seen. And second, in the Gospel Jesus tells us to “stay awake” because we do not know when he is coming.
So we have the choice between the light or the dark, between staying awake or falling sleep. Some Christians in the past chose to go along with whatever was happening in the world around them and they and the world seemed to fall asleep and were plunged into darkness. Other Christians chose the light and stayed awake and swam against the prevailing tide. It was difficult but they brought the world back into the light.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic but each one of us does have our part to play in the great struggle between good and evil, between the children of light and the children of darkness that plays itself out in every generation. We take up our part in this struggle so that we and the world are ready to meet our saviour Jesus Christ when he comes.
During this four week Season of Advent may each of us be aware of the need to sometimes swim against the tide, to sometimes be counter-cultural, to come into the light and stay awake, to be prepared to meet our Lord Jesus when he comes.