FAITH MATTERS: Staying awake to the murmuration of hope

During the first week of Advent in this liturgical cycle scripture encourages us to stay awake and to be alert to everything in the present and into the future. It is also the week that places an emphasis on hope with the lighting of the prophecy candle to remind us that God will fulfil his promise through the birth of Jesus.

For most people, at this time of the year, they experience great anticipation and joy knowing their families and friends will come together to celebrate Christmas. But the reality is for many people this is not the most hope filled time of the year, as individuals and families can suffer both financially and emotionally.

Having recently been in conversations about missionary discipleship, I was struck by a story of the American circus Barnum & Bailey, who a number of years ago, was home to several Catholics. They saw this as an opportunity to not only share their circus trained skills but also provide pastoral care to those who remain on the fringes of society. They would transform one of the trailers into a sacred space for their circus family when there was no local church service to attend while travelling. Another story was of a school principal who financially supported one of his students when the single mother of eight could not afford to raise the child. Yet another story of a journey with a RCIA candidate, meeting when and where they are in life and allowing them to be ready in their own time, instead of following a weekly timetabled program.

Staying awake to being missionary does not exist only within the confines of a church setting. Being missionary can involve having a listening ear so situations and stories can be shared, being patient, letting the waiting car into the traffic line, offering someone a car park, inviting in a stranger to share a meal, paying for someone’s coffee, reaching out to your neighbours or someone you have lost contact with or saying hello to someone you don’t know. 

These acts then become the ordinary, not the extraordinary patterns in society. Working side by side will emerge to bring forth a hope filled world.

Recently I have come to learn more about the phenomenon of murmuration. The term refers to a special kind of flock of birds, commonly the starling and is named after the sound of a low murmur it makes from thousands of wingbeats and soft flight calls. Perhaps murmuration is a metaphor for our future journey as we can learn a lot from how they exist. They are uniquely attuned to weather patterns and thermals; this protects them and prepares them as they come to roost for the night. The swirling together in this skydance protects them from predators and they never collide even in the darkened sky. They are interconnected with other natural systems such as crystals forming, avalanches, metals becoming magnetised and liquids turning into gasses. Each starling is connected to every other starling. There is a space between every bird no matter how much they swarm. Scientists maintain that they keep track of seven bird neighbours and continue to adjust. They do not devolve into chaos because they all ride the thermals together and are attuned to the direction, even as it keeps changing and they find their resting place to sleep, together.

Murmuration offers us an image of staying awake and being alert to each other. Hundreds of starlings fly together in an amazing, whirling wingbeat in spectacular balletic sky dance. They are intimately connected and change at a moment’s notice, totally coordinated that involves those in the front and those at the back. Ruben A. Alez wrote, “Hope is hearing the melody of the future; faith is dancing to it today.”

As we travel through Advent to Christmas and beyond, we can learn much from the starlings, to work together and care for one another.  When we can stay awake, acknowledge, and see others around us the scales of justice can start to be balanced so all can feel valued, dignity and worth.

Joan Chittister writes, “The real gift of Christmas, for which Advent is the process, is learning to hum hope and learning to dance the divine.”

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