“There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,” declared Shakespeare through the mouth of Hamlet. Not only was he writing as a dramatist, he was speaking as a prophet, at least if some recent research is reliable. A study from Brunel University, West London, found that people are less likely to consider something dishonest if they have done it themselves. An online test of some 15,000 volunteers indicated that attitudes to honesty are so divergent that legal standards for right and wrong need revision. People’s views on what dishonest behaviour is are so varied there’s concern that – in good Shakespearean fashion – jurors’ ‘thinking’ might make something good bad, or something bad good and adversely affect the outcome of criminal trials.
It just goes to show that we need norms both for standards in law and morality. Whether we like it or not, we do need to conform to standards set by a source other than ourselves. Indeed a source greater than ourselves! We shall soon celebrate the birth of that ‘source.’ In a few weeks’ time we shall celebrate the birth feast of Jesus who referred to himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (Jn 14.6). Here he links searching for truth and finding it in his words and deeds with experiencing life in its fullness. Now that’s good when you think of it, and even when you don’t. It is hoped that the following four musings may be of some use in preparing to celebrate the wondrous event of the Word becoming flesh. Each in its own quirky way focuses on why Christmas is such an important celebration for Christians and others besides.
You’ve heard of the Canterbury Tales, I’m sure, but what about the Oxford questions? I mean those prickly posers put to candidates in admissions interviews. For example, those interested in biology are handed a cactus and told to talk about it. Those applying for English are asked why they might be interested in the long-running Coronation Street. (Easy to get into a lather over that soap!) Those opting for music are asked to describe the sound that a new musical instrument of their making might have. The method in this madness helps interviewers to assess candidates’ powers of observation, attention to detail and ability to use their critical imagination. So seeing the season we are in, how about a poser or two on Advent?
Poser 1: What’s it all about? The word ‘Advent’ comes from the Latin ad-venio , meaning ‘to come to.’ While it prepares us mentally and spiritually for Christmas especially through the scripture readings at Mass, it’s actually a celebration of three comings: Jesus’ birth as an historical event, God’s incarnation as a saving event and Christ’s Second Coming as the final redemptive event.
Poser 2: Why have four weeks of it? Advent originated in the early Church of Gaul (France) as a preparation for Epiphany. This was a baptismal feast and had a forty-day period of preparation like Lent had. However, Pope Gregory I (590-604) shortened it from six weeks to four. Advent now begins with the Sunday nearest to the feast of St. Andrew the Apostle (30 November) and includes four Sundays. The first Sunday may be as early as 27 November giving Advent twenty-eight days, or as late as 3 December giving it only twenty-one days.
Poser 3: Nowadays, some people may think that preparing for Christmas means mailing cards, stocking up with food and drink, putting up streamers, wrapping gifts and lighting up the tree. What more could there be? Well, how about lighting up our heart, mind and spirit? If Christmas celebrates peace on earth and goodwill to all how might we gift-wrap that peace for those who need it? We won’t need an Oxford degree to recognise the method in this madness. But we might need goodwill for assessing our grasp of life’s meaning, our flair for doing good and our attention to the small detail of those in need.
Formerly scientists thought that the adult human brain was fully finished. Now, neuroscientists have discovered that nerve circuits in the brain that receive a lot of traffic actually grow. No surprise then for a study to show that a woman’s brain grows in certain areas after she’s had a baby. No surprise either that those areas relate to maternal nurturing and reasoning. But, what does surprise is the finding that the greatest brain growth occurs in women who are totally rah-rah about their newborn bundle of joy. In other words, wanting and loving the baby powers the greatest growth in the brains of mothers.
Is that saying anything to us about Advent and Christmas? It surely is. At Christmas we celebrate not just a particular birth, but also all birth, indeed life itself. We’re saying loud and clear that life is precious, that life is gift, that life is beautiful – and that we’re over the moon with being alive. And, God knows, many people both young and old need to hear that loud and clear and believe it.
Not only that, but as people of faith we’re heralding the news that there is better yet to come both for humanity on this beautiful and wonderful planet of ours and for each of us as individuals destined for eternal life. Let’s open up during these weeks of Advent to that hope. The new life it brings to birth in our hearts may not cause our brains to grow but it should cause our minds to broaden.
Italian researchers have found in a study of bottlenose dolphins that they use a more complex system of sounds when hunting in groups than they normally use. They conclude that the bursts of pulsed sounds dolphins emit while hunting, different from their usual whistle sounds, are their language of diplomacy. Since they produce them only when in close proximity to a common prey, they are intended to reduce aggression and avoid conflict. But as it’s the less dominant ones that scuttle off on hearing the bursts, it might also be considered the dolphin equivalent of gunboat diplomacy. But it beats biting the bottlenose off each other.
Unlike dolphins, limited to whistles and squeaks, we can use our voice not only to threaten but more importantly to persuade. We avoid conflict by talking things out, not by lashing out. Peace, both necessary and possible in hearts as well as nations is achievable above all by goodwill.
Just think of the amount of time, effort and cost that goes into near endless rounds of talks when diplomacy replaces goodwill to settle conflicts; when diplomacy tries to soften the blow that goodwill would never try to deliver in the first place.
Advent reminds us that the currency of peace is goodwill and that it’s both costless and priceless. Until we value goodwill that doesn’t cost a cent more than diplomacy that costs a mint we’ll always need that reminder.
Speaking a foreign language can be tricky. For example, the non-national marriage counsellor who tells a client that a man is not complete until he’s married, and that when he is he’s finished. Or, signs in shops abroad such as the one in a Hong Kong tailors: “Ladies may have a fit upstairs.” Or, the one in a hotel room in Paris: “Guests should leave their values with reception.” Enough!
No wonder the Queen’s English Society in England is forming an academy to protect the language from gnarled grammar, rogue apostrophes and the horrors of digital dumbing-down, courtesy of text-speak. One particularly unspeakable aberration, though often spoken, is the adolescent addiction to splinter sentences with the word ‘like’, at – like – the drop of a hat. Not to mention the pain put on a purist’s ear by suspect sentences in a wobble from misplaced stress on words – hence the need for preservation.
Advent reminds us to preserve the values that Christmas stands for: faith in God, hope in his promises and love of our neighbour. Jesus’ birth reminds us of the importance of having some being, greater than ourselves to trust in, something more wonderful than this life can offer to hope for and kindness in our dealings with others. These, not wealth, power or status, produce peace, joy, optimism and give a taste for life. Wouldn’t you, like, agree?