WHEN it is announced from the pulpit or lectern that a patoral letter from the Bishop is about to be read in place of the usual homily, it is often painfully obvious that many members of the congregation are mentally switching off and preparing to allow their thoughts to wander for the next five minutes or so.
People tend to think that "we've heard it all before" and are, at least unconsciously, unwilling to listen to what is about to be read. For such listening is unquestionably a real effort. But it was an effort that, where made, was particularly richly rewarded this year.
Indeed the necessity and ability of listening was the implicit theme of many of the Advent Pastoral Letters, stressing as they did the need for receptivity in the soul in anticipation of again commemorating the coming of Our Lord.
Such listening, necessitating the removal of all distractions from the mind for a small space of time, is, in our age of rushing and racing, a useful yardstick of our faith. For it has been said with truth that "in religion we talk" — even if it is by means of vocal prayer — "but in Faith we listen."
Bonhoeffer put it another way that strikes home even more vividly when he said: "Through religion man speaks to God, but through Faith God speaks to man." And through Faith we hear him.
We have been asked during the time between now and Christmas to listen and look out for each and every possible sign that may be relevant to God's special message to his son and daughters as they await the joy of Christmas.
People object, however, that it is impossible, in normal life, to "listen" to some message that is supernatural. What they really mean is that they do not receive "voices" and that therefore they give up when trying to sit quietly in their rooms or in Church in order to "listen."
The answer to this objection is that God does not usually speak to us by a secret voice; but He speaks to us through the mouths of others, through, even, radio or television programmes, through the printed word.
Our special job in Advent is to be receptive to the messages that are there if we look out for them and have a special relevance to the needs of our souls during this liturgical season devoted to vigilance and waiting.
The phrase "you know not the day nor the hour" contains, short though it maybe, a vast field of listening material. When starting with such a phrase, our thoughts take over and we, through them, are truly listening to God's voice if we keep ourselves tuned in to what is implied in our frightening lack of foreknowledge of the future.
We have thus been called upon, and the various, Pastoral Letters brought this point out forcibly in different ways, to be more united than ever with fellow Christians in watching, waiting, and above all listening, during this our joint vigil of prayer and penance in preparation for Christmas.
The need to be on guard and spritually alert has, for millions of believers, never been more urgent.