First Sunday of Advent – Dec. 3rd
If I were to mention the words “Opus Dei,” many of you would probably have a picture in your minds of a secretive organisation, perhaps rather extreme and involved in various undercover activities, as portrayed in a Dan Brown Novel. In fact the real Opus Dei, whose English HQ are actually very near here on the Bayswater Road, though it was a bit secretive in the past, is now very much part of the mainstream Church in this country, and its priests and lay members I have always found to be kind and very approachable.
The words Opus Dei simply mean “Work of God” in Latin, and reflect the belief of its founder, St. JoseMaria Escriva, that most members of the Church are called to find God and serve him, not in special ways in the Church, though they may do that as well, but precisely in the midst of their daily work, family life and other activities. When we do these things with love and out of a desire to serve God and our neighbour, we are indeed doing God’s work.
There is a phrase in today’s Gospel which underlines this. According to St. Mark, whose Gospel this passage is taken from, these are the last words Jesus spoke before his passion and death, so they are a kind of final message to us. He speaks of a man travelling abroad and leaving his servants in charge, an obvious symbol of himself being about to journey away from this world back to his Father in heaven, and leaving his apostles and their successors in charge of the Church to continue his work. Then comes this significant phrase: each with his own task.
These words apply not just to the apostles but to all of us. We each have our own task: our duties to our family, our work, the various commitments and relationships we have made in our personal life, and Jesus invites us here to see these things, not as the rather boring routine they can easily become, not as a burdensome list of things to get through and tick off, but as an opportunity to serve him and others with love, in fact a true continuation of his own work while he was on earth. We may not be called on to work miracles or teach with authority as he did, but love and humility and confident trust in God can and do work many miracles which may be unseen to the crowds, and do instruct others in God’s ways and lead them to him. This is our own personal “Opus Dei.”
And at the beginning of this Advent season, before we get overwhelmed with all the Christmas preparations, we remind ourselves that one day we shall meet Jesus and give an account of all that we have done in our daily life. The key phrase the Church puts before us at this time of year is vigilance, keeping watch. Nowadays many people are attracted by the idea of Mindfulness, being aware of what passes through our mind and emotions. Well vigilance is a kind of Mindfulness with attitude, and the attitude is that of loving expectation of that great day when we shall meet Christ. face to face and tell him what we have done and why. If we keep that meeting in our minds, we shall have a good indication of what to do, how to do it, and what to avoid.
In his wonderful book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey describes the first habit as “beginning from the end,” that is, basing everything you do on what end you want to achieve. There are many ends or goals we set before ourselves at different times in life according to our circumstances. For some people in the world today, just having food to put on the plates today is a big enough goal; for others it is success in work, starting a family, having some leisure to enjoy life, etc., etc. But every single person on the planet has one end in common, and it is the most important one of our whole life: we will all meet Christ and give an account of ourselves to him.
For the early Christians, such as those St. Paul wrote to in our second reading, it must have been quite easy to picture Christ as someone who had just gone on a journey, and would be back soon to greet them: after all, his death and Resurrection had only taken place a few years before. For us it is harder: it all took place 2000 years ago, and our life expectancy is so much longer that we can easily postpone thinking about that meeting. That is why, from the fifth or sixth century onwards, the Church began to develop the season of Advent, as a way of stirring up this vigilance. After all, if we truly love someone, we look forward with great joy to the day when we will be reunited with them, a day that will be awe-inspiring indeed, to meet the Son of God himself, but if we have placed our trust in him, and used vigilance to keep this meeting in our minds, it will be a day of great mercy when all our questions will finally be answered.