Holiness - the fruit of unconditional love and prayer

To be read on the First Sunday of Advent
28th November 2010

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

This Sunday we begin the season of Advent, which is a season of hope and promise, a season for personal and communal renewal as God’s family, as we prepare to celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas. In the first two weeks the scripture readings at Mass look, in the long term, to the last judgement at the end of time and the final fulfilment of God’s promises to the whole human family. As we progress through Advent the liturgy focuses more closely on the Incarnation when God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. It is in the humanity of Jesus that “we see our God made visible and so are caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.” These four weeks of Advent are given to us by the Church as a special time for us to grow in our appreciation of how much God loves us and what he asks of us in response to that love as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. Clearly, this is something which we need to do every day of our lives, but in Advent we are given a particularly graced season to concentrate our thoughts and prayers on this truth.

During his recent visit to this country Pope Benedict put this challenge before our young people and by implication to all of us: “I ask each of you, first and foremost, to look into your own heart. Think of all the love that your heart was made to receive, and all the love it is meant to give. After all, we were made for love. This is what the Bible means when it says that we are made in the image and likeness of God: we were made to know the God of love, the God who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to find our supreme fulfilment in that divine love that knows no beginning or end… We were made to receive love, and we have. Every day we should thank God for the love we have already known, for the love that has made us who we are, the love that has shown us what is truly important
in life. We need to thank the Lord for the love we have received from our families, our friends, our teachers, and all those people in our lives who have helped us to realise how precious we are, in their eyes and in the eyes of God.”

It is only when we truly begin to appreciate how much God loves us that we are moved to respond to that love. Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And those commandments are twofold: “You must love the Lord your God with your whole heart, mind and strength; and you must love your neighbour as yourself.” Having received the unconditional love of God, we in turn are called to love God and our neighbour in return and in the words of the Holy Father, “to make love the inspiration for all we do and the most enduring thing in our lives”. That, we know, is far from easy. To live lives of unconditional love day by day is something we can’t do by ourselves because we are weak and have a tendency to turn in on ourselves, to be selfish and self centred. “Every day we have to choose to love, and this requires help, the help that comes from Christ, from prayer and from the wisdom found in his word, and from the grace which he bestows on us in the sacraments of his Church.”

It is in living a life of unconditional love that we grow in holiness. All of us, lay people, religious and clergy, are called to be holy men and women; we are called to be saints. But being holy depends on the depth of our spiritual lives, on the intensity of prayer, and of continual formation, which deepens our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ and the Gospel he proclaimed. As Pope Benedict said, “When I invite you to become saints, I am asking you not to be content with second best. I am asking you not to pursue one limited goal and ignore all the others… Happiness is something we all want, but one of the great tragedies in this world is that so many people never find it, because they look for it in the wrong places. The key to it is very simple – true happiness is to be found in God. We need to have the courage to place our deepest hopes in God alone, not in money, in a career, in worldly success, or in our relationships with others, but in God. Only he can satisfy the deepest needs of our hearts…
God wants your friendship. And once you enter into friendship with God, everything in your life begins to change… What God wants most of all for each one of you is that you should become holy. He loves you much more than you could ever begin to imagine, and he wants the very best for you. And by far the best thing for you is to grow in holiness.”

Of course, our response to the Holy Father’s challenge is not restricted just to Advent – it is a challenge we need to respond to each and every day of our lives. But Advent is a specially graced time to concentrate and reflect on it through our meditation on the scriptures and in personal prayer. We are a pilgrim people, a living and growing body, which is always in need of change, reformation and growth. If we grow in holiness we will be able to fulfil more faithfully the mission given to us by Christ to proclaim
the Gospel through the witness of our lives. Through Baptism and Confirmation each one of us has been given gifts by the Holy Spirit precisely to enable us to engage in this mission and to contribute to the building of the Kingdom of God on earth. What is that Kingdom? As we heard last Sunday, the feast of Christ the King, God’s Kingdom is “a Kingdom of love, justice and peace; a Kingdom of truth and life; a Kingdom of holiness and grace.”

We could do no better this Advent than to reflect deeply on, and respond generously to, the Holy Father’s challenge to each one of us, and especially his final words outside Westminster Cathedral: “I ask you to look into your hearts each day to find the source of all true love. Jesus is always there, quietly waiting for us to be still with him and to hear his voice. Deep within your heart, he is calling you to spend time with him in prayer. But this kind of prayer, real prayer, requires discipline; it requires making time for moments of silence every day. Often it means waiting for the Lord to speak. Even amid the “busy-ness” and the stress of our daily lives, we need to make space for silence, because it is in silence that we find God, and in silence that we discover our true self. And in discovering our true self, we discover the particular vocation which God has given us for the building up of his Church and the redemption of our world.”

My prayer for this Advent is that we shall all discover a little more about
our true selves and be given the grace to fulfil more generously the particular vocation God has given us.

With an assurance of my prayers and blessing for you all,

Archbishop of Southwark

Given at Southwark
22nd November 2010