A journey out of the city today to the parish Clement pastors.
In Ireland, the first question asked of a parish seeking to appoint a clergyman is whether it can pay the stipend, an ability to do so generally meaning it must be combined with another parish. Clement’s parish would have no pastor if such a rule applied; this is one of the poorest countries in the world, the people of the parish cannot afford to care adequately for themselves let alone pay a pastor’s salary. Clement earns an income from translation and consultancy work, his ministry to the parish comes without salary or expenses.
This is the first day of Advent. If the Advent hope is real, it must be for all people, everywhere, not just for the affluent West where the lighting of the first Advent candle marks the approach of Christmas. Being a Christian in Burundi comes without sentimentality, it is about having the faith to face the realities of each day.
Words of Thomas Merton have the power to inject a dose of reality into Advent. The hope of this season is not the stuff of newspaper colour supplements with their pictures of blazing log fires and Christmas decorations and their recipes for mulled wine and plum pudding, it is a hope for something infinitely more profound and infinitely more real:
‘The certainty of Christian hope lies beyond passion and beyond knowledge. Therefore we must sometimes expect our hope to come in conflict with darkness, desperation and ignorance. Therefore, too, we must remember that Christian optimism is not a perpetual sense of euphoria, an indefectible comfort in whose presence neither anguish nor tragedy can possibly exist. We must not strive to maintain a climate of optimism by the mere suppression of tragic realities. Christian optimism lies in a hope of victory that transcends all tragedy: a victory in which we pass beyond tragedy to glory with Christ crucified and risen’
Advent optimism here is not for a colour supplement Christmas; people endure living conditions unimaginable to most Europeans. Living at subsistence level, there will be no Christmas shopping, no possibility of spending, none of the thins thought essential for a ‘happy’ Christmas in Ireland. There is no possibility here of confusing Christian optimism with a ‘permanent state of euphoria’; euphoria is in very short supply, the realities are too harsh. Advent optimism is for a victory that transcends all tragedy, for a moment to come that will make sense of all that has gone before. Without that optimism, life is very bleak indeed.