Some call it one of the greatest moments in our recent history and paint a very optimistic picture of a bright future. For others, it’s one of the greatest follies of our time, and they present a gloomy picture of the imminent total collapse of the country and of society at every level. Of course, I’m talking about Brexit. Those highly polarised and polarising views make the headlines because they attract attention. And that’s what the proponents of the opposing sides want to capture: our attention. Such a tactic isn’t new; on the contrary, it’s been so common since time immemorial that it has its own literary term: hyperbole. I’ve found a rather good definition of it: ‘Hyperbole is a literary device wherein the author uses specific words and phrases that exaggerate and overemphasise the basic crux of the statement in order to produce a grander, more noticeable effect. The purpose of hyperbole is to create a larger-than-life effect and overly stress a specific point. Such sentences usually convey an action or sentiment that is generally not practically or realistically possible or plausible but helps to emphasise an emotion.’
Hyperbole can be a really useful and effective device to make a point; but it carries a significant risk when people take it at face value and read it literally rather than figuratively. The risk increases greatly with ignorance both of the background and of the context. It’s particularly clear when people interpret ancient religious texts, like the Koran or the Bible, without adequate knowledge of the broader context of their compilation. Today’s gospel presents us with such a challenge, with a vision of natural and man-made disasters afflicting the population on a cosmic scale. On the face of it, Jesus seems to announce a great deal of suffering of an apocalyptic magnitude. It’s hard to take it in; it’s scary and off-putting. It’s hard to imagine anyone here looking forward to such a catastrophe! But it needs to be understood that the first paragraph is classic hyperbole, addressed to people who have lived through more than their fair share of man-made and natural disasters. We must remember that life in the ancient Middle East was far more challenging and dangerous than our relatively carefree and pampered existence.
The actual message that Jesus wants to convey comes in the second paragraph, and it starts with the key phrase: ‘Watch yourselves!’ Jesus warns his followers against spiritual complacency and laziness, presented here as ‘hearts coarsened with debauchery, and drunkenness and the cares of life,’ because they would leave us fatally exposed to the various challenges, troubles and problems that each one of us will inevitably face: ‘It will come down on every living man on the face of the earth.’ Jesus’ remedies against spiritual laziness and complacency are watchfulness and prayer ‘for the strength to survive all that’s going to happen.’ While prayer is a pretty obvious thing, what in practical terms for us does watchfulness mean?
I presume that many of you are familiar with the term Examination of Conscience. Sadly, such familiarity often brings with it rather unpleasant or even fearful memories of obligatory weekly sacramental Confession. Back then, Examination of Conscience could be like having to make a depressing list of misdeeds in order to confess them to the priest. Such a way of Examination of Conscience and subsequent Confession has effectively rendered the Sacrament of Reconciliation obsolete. But I’m going to offer you a different way of making an Examination of Conscience and I’d like to encourage you to practise it throughout Advent (and perhaps beyond).
First of all, plan a 5-minute period of time during your day; evening is preferable, but might not always be practical for you. Then make a point of finding a quiet and undisturbed place or room. Now, go through your day in your mind. Recall all the positive things that have happened to you and the positive things that you’ve done, and thank God, in your own words, for each one of them. That will help you to realise just how many good things you tend to take for granted and overlook. Then go on to part two. Recall all the unpleasant things that have happened to you and the nasty things you’ve done and where you’ve failed. But instead of indulging in lazy self-accusation and guilt, try to look beyond them to see why it was that you reacted or behaved in a certain way. Ask God to help you see deeper into those things, and to find better ways of dealing with similar situations in the future. In this way the Examination of Conscience can become a simple but powerful and effective tool to respond to the call made by St Paul in today’s second reading: ‘make more and more progress in the kind of life that you are meant to live.’ What better moment to make a start than at the beginning of Advent?