Most readers will receive these words on December 2nd, the first Sunday of another Advent season. It seems a long time now since clergy maintained a disciplined tradition of preaching in Advent on the ‘Four Last Things’ – namely Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. To follow such a sequence now would seem very old-fashioned; anyway the avalanche of carol services and other pre-Christmas liturgical revelries would make it impossible in practical terms to do so.
Yet there are times when I long to hear and even preach sermons on some of these themes – and perhaps in particular Judgement. I think here not only of the Last Judgment (and of course we do well to live our lives with a real awareness that our actions and conduct stand under the judgement as well as the mercy of God), but also of the everyday gift of sound judgement. Life is an unending series of choices, whether large or small, and the choices and the judgements we make affect profoundly the well being of other people. To give but a few examples of the impact of our judgements
- the way we choose day by day to spend our money has major impact, whether on local job creation, or on the income of poor farmers in the developing world on whose labours we depend virtually every time we sip our coffee, or on the increasingly complex area of ethical investment
- Our choices concerning travel, the use of public transport, and particularly the burning of fossil fuel have an enormous collective impact on the well-being of the planet
- The choices we are asked to make in elections and referendums shape the values and the ethos of the society in which our neighbours as well as ourselves will be obliged to live; every vote truly counts.
- The choices we make on behalf of our children in relation to the context and content of both their education and their leisure activities affect their lives indelibly
- The choice we probably should make to turn off at least sometimes all forms of mobile and electronic communication, and all small screens, would allow us to concentrate on the conversations and the true friendships that really matter. Yet few of us make the choice to discipline our addiction to constant and intrusive cyber-availability!
Life gets more and more hectic, it presents more and more choices, the moral challenges not least of the electronic global village become ever more exhausting. Putting it in a personal nutshell – I suffer from a measure of corrosive addiction to my iPhone, constantly checking it and fiddling with it. Yet as recently as when I first became bishop of this diocese, the iPhone had not yet been launched in Ireland. In those distant days, passengers on trains used to have interesting spontaneous conversations or at least looked at the scenery – now virtually everyone fiddles continually with a small screen which is the source of a torrent of poorly-digested information and indeed of inadequate ethical guidance.
Never did society need more a renewal of the gift of sound judgment, the capacity to make good choices, the ability to assess the impact of our decisions on other people. Our Prayer Book was typically prophetic when centuries ago it ranked ‘right judgement ‘ as paramount among the gifts of the Holy Spirit … not on the face of it a dramatic gift, but certainly a gift of more value than rubies.
We might aspire still to use Advent as a time to think about Judgement, not only the ultimate judgement of God but also our own responsibility to judge well and to choose well, to take time to reflect upon the great ethical complexities of contemporary life. And, oddly enough, Advent not only provides an ancient spiritual imperative to think about sound judgement ; it also provides a practical context in which to strive to exercise it.
Think of our Christmas shopping – often done too hastily and therefore a setting for poor or unreflective choices. At Christmas most of us spend more than at any other single time of the year. Undoubtedly the nature of our pre-Christmas spend connects with very many of the ethical questions which I have mentioned already, and thus involves considerable moral responsibility. By my spending am I boosting local employment and supporting fair trade? Do some of my purchases involve unnecessary air mileage for items which could also be sourced more locally? What messages am I conveying to children by the gifts which I select for them? Is it really appropriate to be constantly covetous concerning the latest electronic gadget? How much of my money am I giving as opposed to spending around Christmas? What have I really done, whether for the homeless or those who depend on the Bishops’Appeal?
So let’s prepare well for Christmas ethically as well as spiritually. Let’s enjoy the shopping and the accompanying frenzy, but remember that it also involves a moral dimension. Let’s remember that we handle a lot of money at this time of year, and the greatest ethical challenges most of us face in everyday living, and indeed discipleship, demand sound judgments concerning money and cash and credit.
Advent should be a time to focus not only on the Judgement of God, but also on the judgements we make ourselves each day. Choose wisely as you shop and spend and prepare, and then have a truly wonderful Christmas. Warm Greetings to you all in every parish from all at the Bishops’ House and the diocesan office.
Michael Cashel Ferns and Ossory