Sunday, November 29, 2009

1st Sunday of Advent (C)
Coffee, Karate and Christmas

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Dear sisters and brothers, as you know, today we begin a new church year by entering the season of Advent. Why, you may wonder do we do this? Why not follow what we do on New Year’s Day? Why not just dive straight into Christmas, with a countdown and some champagne? Why bother with the four Sundays of Advent? To answer this question, I think we need to appreciate an important difference, a difference that we often forget about. Sisters and brothers, what is the difference between coffee and karate?

About a month or more ago, Starbucks Coffee introduced a new product: instant coffee. Of course, other brands of instant coffee have been available for a very long time. But Starbucks claims that their instant coffee is as good, if not better, than their regular version. To prove it, they even let people take taste tests at their stores. Now, I am not a coffee drinker. I don’t know the results of those tests. But if the claim is true, then coffee might well be one of those things that you can enjoy instantly without sacrificing quality.

Compare that with karate. Some of us may remember the movie The Karate Kid. A teenager takes up karate to defend himself against some bullies. But, although he’s very eager to learn, his teacher – who looks like a harmless little old man – only gives him ordinary household jobs to do. Paint the gate. Wax the car. Sand the wooden floor. At first, the boy is frustrated and impatient. Why is he wasting his time doing chores, while the bullies are learning karate under their own teacher? Why can’t he learn as quickly they seem to be doing? But later, he realizes that his chores were really part of the training. By repeatedly applying wax on and taking wax off, for example, he was learning defensive blocks. More importantly, his teacher was teaching him that karate was much more than just about beating an opponent in a fight. It was also about discipline and perseverance, mercy and self-restraint, things that the bullies had failed to learn. Even if they had picked up some fancy moves rather quickly, theirs was not the real thing. True karate requires much time, effort and self-sacrifice. Unlike coffee, there really is no such thing as instant karate.

And what about Christmas? Have you noticed how, suddenly, the radio stations are playing nothing but Christmas carols? Overnight, a huge Christmas tree has sprouted on State Street. Christmas decorations are everywhere, even while some of us are still finishing those leftovers from Thanksgiving. What is this, if not instant Christmas? But is there really such a thing? Is Christmas really more like coffee than karate?

Not if our Mass readings are anything to go by. While everything around us might lead us to think that Christmas has to do only with trees and tinsels, presents and parties, or even cribs containing cuddly newborn babes, our readings remind us that it’s also about much more. Long before we hear anything about a baby born in a manger, the liturgy helps us to prepare for Christmas by reminding us about its deeper meaning.

The first reading reminds us that Christmas is about the fulfillment of a promise. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to house of Israel and Judah…. In those days Judah shall be safe and Jerusalem shall be secure… To a small and insignificant nation, a people constantly threatened by powerful enemies – a people not unlike the karate kid – God promises safety and security. And this promise is made also to us. Even if we may live in the most powerful country in the world, aren’t we also threatened by bullies of different sorts? Some of our bullies are external: like rising costs of living and unemployment, or addiction to alcohol and drugs, or misunderstandings with family and friends. Other bullies are internal: like selfishness and greed, or the refusal to forgive, or the neglect of those who are suffering. But if Christmas is the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise to help us deal with our enemies, then we must first be able to identify them. Who are your enemies?

And not only does Advent give us the opportunity to identify our bullies, it also helps us to recognize the God who comes to deal with them. For God appears among us in many different ways, sometimes in ways as surprising as the harmless little old karate master. And not all of these appearances are as pleasant and attractive as a cute and cuddly newborn baby. In the gospel, for example, Jesus paints a terrifying picture of the circumstances surrounding his second coming at the end of time. People will die of fright, he tells us, in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud of power and great glory… And not just at the end of time, even today, God can come to us in surprising ways. Think, for example, of the person who, after losing his job, begins to realize how much he has been neglecting his family. Advent is a time for us to learn to recognize and to welcome the God who often comes among us in unexpected ways.

And, as the karate kid found out, to do all this, we need to undergo training. Our readings describe this in three ways. The first is waiting. After begging God to teach me your paths, the psalmist says this: for you are God my savior, and for you I wait all the day. Not just an hour or two. The psalmist waits all the day. Second, in the gospel, Jesus tells us that this waiting involves being alert. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life…. Be vigilant at all times and pray for the strength… to stand before the Son of Man. Third, to engage in vigilant waiting does not mean simply doing nothing. It involves continually trying to do the right thing. As Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading, we earnestly ask and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, as you received from us how you should conduct yourselves to please God... you do so even more. Vigilant waiting through right conduct – this is the training that we are undertaking in this season of Advent, in preparation for the God who comes to fulfill God’s promises to us.

Today, most of us live in an instant world. Starbucks sells instant coffee. For a cheap lunch, I often make instant ramen. We get instant information on the Internet. We contact one another instantly by cellphone... All this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But it can get dangerous when we forget that, unlike coffee, there are also things in life that cannot be had instantly, things like karate, of course, but also things like justice and peace and true friendship. As well as things like Christmas. Isn’t this why we need the season of Advent?

Sisters and brothers, what will Christmas look like for you this year? Coffee or karate?


  1. Sorry, Fr Chris - I beg to differ.

    I am a coffee-drinker and instant coffee is not as good as the freshly-brewed stuff. I take 3-in-one for convenience but trust me, it is not as good as the "real stuff".

    Same with karate kid and parallels with Advent.

    I make my kids work for their rewards. You want a computer game, ok get me ____ results for your exam. If they hit the target, they get their reward, if not too bad. If they exceed the target, they get reward plus extra. They treasure their reward so much more if they have to work for it.

  2. There is really nothing instant about coffee- at least not from the coffee farmer's point of view; and Starbucks is quick to assure us that their excellent coffee source is from ethical farming which seeks to protect the rights of the small farmers (hence issues of justice and peace).

    Whether the tiny coffee bean growing on Latin American soil, or lucious grapes gracing European vineyards, we often forget the toils of those who labour for our coffee, wine, bread, milk and sugar (to name a few of my favourite foods!)

    Those who cannot afford to sit at Starbucks outlets often know about discipline, perseverence and waiting as they labour to feed their impoverished families. Do we as end-point consumers enjoying the fruits of their labour show mercy, self-restraint and right conduct towards our poorer brothers and sisters in the world?

    Something is truly lost in our instant society- we forget to be gracious and grateful for the abundance we often enjoy. How apt to reflect on coffee at the beginning of this Advent season- reminding me to keep in prayer those whose labours are often forgotten and even exploited.

    As I savour my next cup of freshly brewed coffee or tea, whether in solitude or company, it is a time to remember that Advent will always be with us as long as there are others who cannot afford to enjoy a cuppa with me at Starbucks.