Homily for Solemn Mass for First Sunday of Advent Year A – St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

27 Nov 2016

Homily for Solemn Mass for First Sunday of Advent Year A
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

In 2013 the television series Breaking Bad was listed in the Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed TV series of all time. It has received numerous awards, including sixteen Emmys and two Golden Globes. It’s been watched by millions, including I confess at least one archbishop – for a friend of mine downloaded it onto my iPad earlier this year while I was recovering in hospital.

Breaking Bad is the darkly comic tale of Walter White, an ordinary man living an ordinary life, as a school teacher, husband and father of two, with a third on the way. He wanders around slightly hunched over, as if carrying the burdens of the world on his shoulders; on his salary he can barely make ends meet on his salary and worries he won’t be able to feed another mouth; and he permanently anxious about his teenaged son who is battling cerebral palsy. Walter thinks things can’t get much worse – and then he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. His immediate anxiety is not for himself but for his very dependent family who will be financially ruined by his treatment and then lose their bread-winner. He believes he must put together some sort of nest egg for his family in the time he has left. What would you do?

Most of us wouldn’t even consider entering the highly lucrative, highly illegal and highly immoral business of drug manufacturing. Yet Walter rather ‘innocently’ decides to apply his considerable expertise in chemistry to producing high quality methamphetamine and teams up with a delinquent former student of his, Jesse Pinkman, to sell the stuff on the streets. The rest of Breaking Bad is about Walter’s transformation from ordinary family man into a ruthless drug lord.

Capturing the attention of audiences and acclaim of critics was the way the show enabled the viewer to sympathise with the protagonist turned antagonist. Somehow, despite the many horrible deeds Walter commits or directs, viewers are reluctant to condemn him as quickly as we would someone who did such things in real life. Perhaps it’s because of his compellingly ordinary humanity or his selfless drivenness to protect his family; but also because he is only corrupted bit by bit, at first seeking only a few thousand dollars for a good cause but increasingly greedy for more and morally blind to how he gets it. Instead of choosing mortal sin all at once, as it were, he seems to slide gradually, almost imperceptibly, into it.

Sympathetic as it is, the show is in no sense an apologia for the drug trade. Quite the contrary: we get to see, and almost feel from the inside, the terrible moral decline of this man, even if by small steps over many episodes. And this, according to the series creator, Vince Gilligan, goes to the heart of what is what Breaking Bad is about: that “actions have consequences”, above all in what they do to the agent of those actions.1 Ultimately, he wrote, “some sort of… biblical atonement or justice…” comes to those who have so damaged themselves.

Today’s Gospel recalls the classic biblical story of a culture steeped in gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity and worse, and the terrible end that came to them in Noah’s day. We are cautioned that such a time will come again, for us individually (when two may be working together and one be taken) or all of us together, and we must be ready for it or it will come when least expected (Mt 24:37-44).

Such preparedness does not come all at once. Our readiness comes in proportion to our good choices, the big ones we make from time to time, and the little ones we make everyday; our unreadiness for judgment comes from our bad actions, big and small. The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates taught that it was better to suffer evil than ever to perpetrate it, noting that doing evil harms the perpetrator even more than the victim. His disciple Aristotle explained how our good and bad habits are shaped by our choices and in turn shape both our character and our likely future actions. And his disciple St Thomas Aquinas showed how sacramental grace enables repentance, renewal, a whole new person to emerge even from past vice.

The modern spiritual writer Fr Jacques Philippe observes in his book, Interior Freedom, that we cannot change the past or control the future; the only time over which we can exercise real choice is the present (p.81). For the Christian, knowing this is a great liberation. We need not fret over past mistakes, vainly trying to turn back the clock: we need only decide to repent now, confess now, and start afresh on the right course now. We need not worry about future mistakes, vainly trying to control what is uncertain and beyond our grasp: we need only make good resolutions now and cultivate good habits now, and act accordingly now. “Do good and avoid evil… Seek first the kingdom of God… Be merciful (even perfect) like your Heavenly Father” – co-operate with divine grace in these things here and now and you need not fear.

Which brings me to Advent or “Little Lent” as it is sometimes called. If the forty days we spend each year in the desert of Lent is our chance for an at-least-annual thorough examination of conscience and confession of our worst sins, the shorter preparation time we have before Christmas might be an opportunity to identify those little wrongs we have done, none so serious in themselves, but all of them together over time and unrepented, enough for us to end up “Breaking Bad”.

I doubt, dear friends, that any of you has crimes like Walter White’s to tell, but if you do, for heaven’s sake, repent, confess, and start afresh. And if your moral life has been rather less colourful, still there are improvements to make, little things to bring to the Lord in Confession, little penances to help sweep out the crib of your heart in readiness for the Christmas Babe. The secular world makes New Year’s Resolutions on 1 January and breaks those resolutions on 2 January. Well, today is the Church’s New Year’s Day, the start of a new liturgical year, indeed a new cycle of three years. So let’s make our resolutions today: to reject evil and embrace good; to seek God’s will (His kingdom come), in all our choices, big and small; to return to the Father of Mercies in Confession seeking forgiveness for our bad choices, small and great; and so ready ourselves, now, for His return to us and our return to Him!

Introduction to Solemn Mass for First Sunday of Advent Year A
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral for the Solemn Mass for the first Sunday of Advent and so of the new Liturgical Year. This begins our journey to the celebration of the Nativity of Our Saviour. Advent is a special time of preparation; a time when we prepare not only for the first coming of the Infant King at Christmas, but also for His Second Coming, at the end of time, and our return to Him somewhere in between!

After Mass we will bless the Christmas crib in the cathedral square and you are all most welcome to join me for that. Thereafter I will open the schools Christmas Story Art Exhibition in the crypt: to any of our Year 5 and 6 artists and their families who’ve come early: it’s great to have you here.

I’m delighted to welcome concelebrating with me today my friend Bishop Gerard Holohan, the Bishop of Bunbury.
To everyone present, including visitors and more regulars, a very warm welcome!