Dear Brothers and Sisters,
We have been through some dark times in 2020. We have learned some new words that we probably would never have used before – pandemic, lockdown, coronavirus, Covid19 – to mention but a few. Perhaps you, like me, and many others, have experienced fear, anxiety, and personal vulnerability in a much more heightened way than previously. Back in February and March I found myself tuning into the news on the Radio and the TV frequently throughout the day. Then it became just too much to process and contain. It was affecting sleep and concentration. There were so many opinions and contrary opinions, so many theories and counter theories. Interviewers were demanding responses to questions to which no one knew the answers because this was unknown territory. Words multiplied and so many experts were set up and knocked down, promises were made which were doomed to failure within days and hours; targets set that everyone knew could never be met. Confusion reigned, peace evaded us, and that fear, anxiety and vulnerability increased. What was worse, for us people of faith, was the closing of places of worship, not being able to fully take part in the Eucharist and receive Holy Communion.
‘Console my people, console them’ says your God.
A voice cries, ‘Prepare in the wilderness a way for the Lord.
Make a straight highway for our God across the desert.
…..then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all mankind shall see it….
Shout with a loud voice, Shout without fear, say ‘Here is your God.’
He is like a shepherd feeding his flock, gathering lambs in his arms,
As unprecedented as these times may appear, our ancestors experienced them, or similar before us. They walked through the darkness and focused on the light and came through it all perhaps better and stronger and more enlightened. They heard the words of the prophecy from Isaiah which I have just quoted, and they took them to heart knowing that in each generation they were meant for them. They are meant for us, also.
Together with them, our ancestors, we should be able to confidently proclaim today’s psalm:
I will hear what the Lord God has to say,
a voice that speaks of peace,
peace for his people.
His help is near for those who fear him…
Just think of how our experiences during these last months have allowed us to share and learn new realities. We took our freedom to worship and our easy access to churches very much for granted until it was temporarily taken from us. We felt fear, and at times despair, in the face of sickness and disease which threatened to overwhelm us, but we held on to the trust that medical science would eventually come to our aid. We have been faced with a terrible economic downturn, but for many there has been help from Government and support from local charities.
However, for many of our brothers and sisters in the world, freedom of worship and easy access to churches just is not possible. Fear and despair, for many, will not be taken away because there is no infrastructure to allow medical science to help them. For millions, their experience of poverty, hunger and the denial of their basic human rights will not or cannot be solved by their Governments and local charities are non-existent. Over these months, in some small way we have been able to share their plight, their situations. Surely, we have grown in solidarity with them – a strange time to think of reducing our Foreign Aid Budget!
The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In the course of his preaching he (John the Baptist) said,
‘Someone is following me, someone who is more powerful than I am…..
he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.’
In the face of so much confusion and uncertainty, it is important that we hold on to what we know to be true, namely Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is the Good News. Through Him we are offered the means of healing, forgiveness, strength and above all the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the Divine Comforter. As well as the help that we need to guide us through our daily lives we are also given the offer of eternal life with the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. In the face of this, how can we be sad and downcast, no matter what life may throw at us, how can we be without hope? We are held safe and loved in the providential hands of our God!
Advent is the season of waiting, but wating in hope for the Lord who has never let us down in the past, who sustains us now in the present and we believe, we hope that he will do the same in the future.
So, what we are waiting for is what he promised: the new heavens and new earth…do your best to live lives without spot or stain so that he will find you at peace.
The hope of Advent be with you all and your families and friends, and may you experience the peace of Christ coming anew this Christmas into our world, into our homes, into our hearts.
Yours in blessed hope,
Bishop of Middlesbrough