Many years ago I was working in Dublin with some kids who lived on the streets. They were tough, hard and uncompromisingly honest. I was 18 and had had a difficult upbringing but it was still nothing like what these kids had experienced. I realised pretty soon that I was afraid of them and that because of my fear I judged myself as superior to them.
Sadly we all judge others usually on the most superficial criteria – the colour of our skin, our economic standing, the creed we profess. The categories we use to separate ourselves from others are endless. I guess this is because it is easier to judge somebody else rather than face our own fear. Our fear is too great, too strong. Our hearts are too small to accept otherness.
I believe that within me the miracle has to take place where I no longer feel the need to divide and separate. Somehow the Spirit has to set me free of my own fear. Deep within, the Spirit has to plant the seed of love that can grow and enlarge my heart. What does conversion mean if not that our hearts are to become bigger and we are able to accept one another with all our differences and to love?
You might ask what this has to do with Advent. All of the scriptural stories around Advent invite us to reflect and focus on our own need for freedom from fear. Mary is an example of someone whose heart was wide enough to overcome her fear. Zechariah was struck dumb because of his fear. Elizabeth was able to trust rather than be afraid. The Christ child comes that we might live free from fear.
Advent is not just about preparing for Christmas with all that means – eating, drinking, parties, present-buying, card-writing. It is a time to open our hearts to the ever-coming Christ and to allow him to free us from our fear, though first we have to name those fears and face them. That is never easy but it is life-giving.