Social media has been awash recently with memes about the Syrian refugee crisis and Western governments’ attempts to control the influx of people across borders. One meme in particular that I’ve seen circulating has a photo of a nativity scene with the caption: “If only we had a seasonally appropriate story about Middle Eastern people seeking refuge … and being turned away by the heartless.” Another meme shows a painting of Jesus teaching the crowds, with the following dialogue: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you.” “But Jesus, what about if they’re Muslim?” “…Ok, I’m going to start over from the beginning. Let me know where I lost you.”
These memes have provided much for food for thought as Advent approaches. What does it mean to prepare the way for Jesus’ coming? What does that look like in my life? How can I prepare my heart to welcome Jesus when I so often fail to see God’s presence in my life already? When I turn away, when I choose not to see the demands made of me because it disrupts my comfortable life? When I close myself off for fear of being overwhelmed by the needs of the world? A prayer by French priest Michel Quoist has discomfited me for many years:
This evening, Lord, I am afraid.
I am afraid, for your Gospel is terrible.
It is easy to hear it preached,
It is relatively easy not to be shocked by it,
But it is very difficult to live it.
I am afraid of deluding myself, Lord.
I am afraid of being satisfied with my decent little life,
I am afraid of my good habits, for I take them for virtues;
I am afraid of my little efforts, for I take them for progress;
I am afraid of my activities; they make me think I am giving myself.
I am afraid of my clever planning; I take it for success.
I am afraid of my influence, I imagine that it will transform lives;
I am afraid of what I give; it hides what I withhold;
I am afraid, Lord; there are people who are poorer than I;
Not so well educated,
I am afraid, Lord, for I do not do enough for them,
I do not do everything for them.
I should give everything.
I should give everything until there is not a single pain, a single misery, a single sin in the world.
I should then give all, Lord, all the time.
I should give my life.
Lord, it is not true, is it?
It is not true for everyone,
I am exaggerating, I must be sensible!
Son, there is only one commandment,
You shall love with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your strength.
(Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life, 1954)
This prayer describes my fear perfectly. Yet I know the risk is worth it; and indeed, it is the only way to live deeply. To open myself to God and to let God’s light stream in, in order to receive the fullness of life God promises us. Even though this means being challenged in my sin, being continually invited to open myself more and more, to dismantle the barriers I put up, and being stretched beyond discomfort into real love.
Advent is about hope. Hope that God is present in the darkness, that God can free us from all that binds us, that God can open our hearts, and that God’s love can transform us into people of love, hope and faith who live in communion with each other and provide a space of welcome for all who need our hospitality and protection.
Christina Rocha is a Canberra writer and lawyer.