(Every worshipper today is given a sticky label to write their name on. At the start of Mass, we celebrate the rites of welcome for those to be baptised or received into the Church next Easter. Before reading the Gospel, the congregation are asked to remain standing for a moment when it ends.)
Altar servers, singers, members of the deaf pastoral group, please take your seats. Each of you sits in a certain place because you need to be in that position because of your role. Now, could I ask the rest of you to exchange places with someone else? And be seated.
(A basket of straw is presented.)
See in the corner, our crib has been built. Here is straw for the floor – straw for the place where the Son of God will be born among men and women. When the Son of God came to earth, his first dwelling place was a borrowed dwelling. Advent begins today – the season when we must make our hearts ready for the coming of Christ. It is right and fitting that we begin Advent in a place slightly strange and uncomfortable.
Advent! Happy new year!
This weekend, we celebrate a new church year, and as on January 1st we make resolutions for our life in general, so today we should begin afresh our spiritual life. We all suffer from the human condition. We know the good things we are called to do, but we become lazy or distracted. We sometimes need a reminder to do the good things we already know we should be doing. The words of scripture speak to us:
- Live the kind of life that you are meant to be living;
- Live the kind of life that you are already living;
- Do not allow your hearts to become coarsened.
The first words of our parish Vision Statement say: The parish of St Philip Evans is a welcoming Catholic community.
They remain only words on paper unless we put them into practice. How should we welcome others? To answer that, ask yourself how you would like to be welcomed when you visit another church?
For example, you are a visitor sitting in another church and the regular parishioner who normally uses that seat arrives. Do you want to be asked to move, or do you expect the regular parishioner to sit elsewhere without passing comment? The golden rule tells us that we must treat others the way we would like to be treated. So if any one of us comes to St Philip Evans and finds our usual seat occupied, I’ll tell you exactly what to say. Say this: “Thank you Jesus, that a new person has come to join us!”
I’ve asked you to swap seats today as a reminder that the seat you usually sit in is not your seat. It’s only a seat you are welcome to us as long as no-one else is already using it. Even this chair here behind the altar, it’s not my seat. When the Archbishop comes, he uses it. If Deacon Steve conducts a wedding or funeral, without any priest present, he uses it. If the inn-keeper in Bethlehem has said “This stable isn’t a place for families,” Our Lord would have been born in the streets. But Our Lord was welcomed to a place which wasn’t his.
Now, a second reminder. What happens when we exchange the sign of peace? Exactly one year ago, I asked us to begin doing so by name. Today we are wearing name badges to make it easier for us to do so, but on other weeks I encourage you to ask the name of anyone standing near you don’t already know, before you shake hands.
How else can we make this a welcoming parish? We need to ensure that anyone who volunteers to help is given a genuine opportunity to help, as long as they can do so competently. I’ve heard of parishes where no-one else was allowed to help with flowers, or with the collection, or with counting the money, because so-and-so always does it. That is not the sign of a welcoming community. No-one should be forced out of a role where they are doing good work, but neither should any one of us block another person from helping.
Why don’t we always welcome help? Sometimes it’s pride – “I can do this on my own.” But God doesn’t want us to work alone; love asks us to work together. And sometimes we don’t want to let go of a role because we think it’s what makes us important. But there’s a saying, that the graveyards are full of important people. For most of us, sooner or later our health or our family circumstances mean that we can no longer do the things we used to. If I ask “Who am I?” and the answer is “a child loved by God not because of anything I’ve done, but because God’s loves me anyway,” I can feel secure. If I ask “Who am I,” and the answer is, “I am a Reader, or an Extraordinary Minister of Communion, or a Signer, or a Singer,” then I have a problem, because on the day I can no longer do that role, and such a day will come, I will have a crisis.
Each one of us is called to grow in virtue. That is, we must keep practicing our good habits until they become automatic. Getting into good habits is like strewing straw in a stable, it makes the ground ready for Christ to live in our hearts. Today let’s practice the good habits of welcoming others, and helping them to share in our work.
God expects that each one of us will give generously of the talents and abilities entrusted to us. We may even receive a special reward in heaven for doing good on earth. But we don’t do good to earn our place in heaven – we can’t. The child born in Bethlehem earned that for us. It’s HIS seat, but he doesn’t mind if we sit there too. So budge up – make room for everyone! And may the Lord be generous in increasing your love for one another!