Sunday, November 29, 2009

God's Anti-Anxiety Vaccine (1st Sunday of Advent, C)

No-one’s likely to tune out the homily this week, since we’re focusing on something everyone can relate to: anxiety. Five year olds experience anxiety, long before they can spell the word. Teenagers are anxious about a million things. Newlyweds worry about housing costs. Middle-aged people are concerned for their retirement.

And just when you think you’ve got things under control, you start getting anxious about your health, and, eventually, mortality.

We’re all in this together. About the only thing that doesn’t make me anxious is the fear of unemployment.

Lately the H1N1 virus has caused a whole lot of anxiety—I call it flu phobia. In particular, the flu vaccine has been in the headlines for weeks. Getting the shot was like winning the lottery for some people, while a small group doesn’t even want one. There’s been a shortage of vaccine, but no shortage of controversy.

On one point, though, everyone agrees. The flu shot doesn’t cure the flu. Vaccines don’t cure illness; they prevent it. And flu vaccines don’t always stop you getting the flu but rather make the sickness less severe.

That’s an important distinction, isn’t it? Sometimes we think our faith should be a cure for anxiety. We’d like it to work like an antidote, banishing worry from our lives.

I learned a valuable lesson about that from Sister Josephine Carney, who spent a couple of days in the parish this week. Many of you know her, although obviously not everyone, since we had a phone message asking what time Mother Teresa would be giving her talk! Sister Jo is the 89-year old sister of our late archbishop, and though almost blind she regularly travels back and forth between Vancouver and her home in Victoria giving talks and retreats.

During her visit here, Sister told a story from her childhood. Once, after she’d got frightened, her father asked “but didn’t I tell you not to be afraid?”

She replied “I wasn’t really frightened, but my stomach was.”

What he said next was truly wise. He told her that her stomach would often feel frightened, but that she was not her stomach. I’ve never heard a simpler explanation for what it means for the Christian to stand tall in the face of fear.

Fear is a feeling. We don’t control our feelings. So when Jesus said “do not be afraid” he can’t have been talking to our stomachs, but to our heads. We are meant to keep our heads in times of turbulence, not to faint from fear and foreboding.

But this, surely, is easier said than done. Anxiety is upon is in a flash. A series of reflexes takes over. How can we be expected to cope as Christians?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us how to get vaccinated against fear, especially the fear that comes with the end of time or the end of our earthly lives. He offers no guarantee that we won’t feel anxious, but he shows us how to become strong enough to face our fear.

The first thing our Lord says is “stand up and raise your heads.” I’d be inclined to translate that “stand up and look up.” Know what’s happening around you, and face it. The worst fears are fears of the unknown. We need to read the signs of the times: to reflect intelligently on what’s going on around us.

Are we aware of the strategies Satan is using against our society and against as individuals? (If we’re not, it’s probably to read or re-read C.S. Lewis’ classic The Screwtape Letters, where a senior devil reveals Satan’s tactics to a junior tempter.)

Do we analyze the signs of the times, the trends in the media, politics and entertainment for evidence that we are being misled? Being awake to these realities and guarding ourselves from them is a very “proactive” meaning of staying awake.

At the same time, don’t bury your head in the sand. In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, there is a beast described as “so mind-bogglingly stupid that it assumes that if you can't see it, then it can't see you.” Refusing to acknowledge the risks and challenges we face guarantees we’ll be surprised by temptation or trial. We may not feel anxious, but our peace will be false.

We must watch out for anything that can harm us or those for whom we are responsible. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so like the watchmen who stood on the ramparts of Jerusalem, we must be alert to every spiritual danger.

“Be on guard” is the second part of Christ’s anti-anxiety vaccine. What he’s saying is “guard yourself”—don’t be like a watchman asleep at his post after a few drinks on duty. Christians who are sluggish from sin will hardly recognize what’s happening when things really start to heat up in their lives or in their world.

This means getting a handle on those things that cloud our vision and slow us down—what the Letter to the Hebrews calls “the sin that clings so easily.” It means getting serious about our bad habits, addictions and compromises, and starting to live the Christian life as if it really matters—which it really does.

Repentance and conversion are always the first step towards welcoming Christ at his coming. They are also essential if we’re to have the spiritual strength to endure trouble without losing heart.

Do we practice the Christian discipline of examining our consciences, probing our actions and even our feelings for signs of sinful acts and patterns? This is indispensable to staying alert. We used to speak of avoiding the near occasions of sin, by which was meant steering clear of situations and people who draw us away from the Lord. And, of course, do we celebrate the sacrament of penance regularly, going to confession to receive both grace and strength—and to keep watch over ourselves?

Finally, Jesus tells us we must pray. And mean what we pray. How many times have we said “Lead us not into temptation?” How many times “Deliver us from evil”? Prayer is the way Christians keep focused and stay alert.

Prayer is where we find our strength. Prayer is the ultimate vaccine against anxiety, because in prayer we surrender our will to God’s: “thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Prayer is how we put ourselves in God’s hands as regards both the present and the future.

Let me close with a parable, not from the gospel but from management expert Stephen Covey. In his book First Things First, Covey compares going to school and farming. He confesses that in school he used to cram for exams; I'm afraid I did the same. But he asks us to think about the results we'd get from cramming on the farm. What happens if you forget to plant in the Spring, lie around all summer, then madly sow seed in the Fall? We all know the answer: not much! That's the Law of the Farm.

God is a bit more generous with us, allowing for the occasional deathbed conversion or the like. But ordinarily, he asks us to prepare for what’s ahead of us with the steady effort the farmer shows in preparing for the crop.

That steady effort will slowly move us from anxiety to peace, from worry to hope. Advent is our annual reminder of this, our time to wake from sleep and watch for God: for we do not know when our trials may come.

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