Sometimes in our house there is confusion. I use words and phrases that I think are quite clear and am met with a blank look or a ‘what do you mean?’ question. Phrases such as ‘that cost an arm and a leg’ or ‘more farewells than Nellie Melba’ are not clear and do not communicate effectively if you have not been initiated into the culture. Some turns of phrase or colloquialisms require more work and more knowledge than others. While I might be able to work out that the loss of an arm or a leg is an incredible price to pay, I cannot work out the meaning of Nellie Melba’s farewells; unless I know something about Nellie Melba, and something about the story of her ongoing farewells. Once I know more about the world behind these sayings I can use them, appreciate them, enjoy and sometimes even play further with them.
We are experiencing something of the same dynamic at work when it comes to handing on the faith in our culture today. We often hear people say that young people find Mass boring or that people today cannot relate to Church and parish life. For many people in our contemporary culture attending Mass must be like listening to unfamiliar colloquialisms and idioms. The problem is often, not that we need to change our language but that we need to make much more of an effort to initiate people into the Christian story. An article in a Melbourne newspaper a couple of years ago reported the incident of a young boy who came home from kindergarten to tell his parents that he had been part of the Christmas play at kindergarten and to his amazement the baby’s name was a swear word! For many of us this is a shocking story to tell. But it highlights the point. The Christian story is not something that we can simply presume everyone in our society understands. It is certainly not something that we can presume people understand with any depth of knowledge or experience.
The task of initiation, of introducing the person of Jesus Christ and his gospel to our contemporaries, is an enormous challenge for us today. We need to take great care in doing this. Many priests, and teachers can overestimate the ability of the young in particular, to automatically understand what we are talking about and why it is important. We need to reflect on our assumptions and our expectations when talking about the faith. None of this, of course, excuses the church from well overdue reform in many areas of its life, including the role of women in the church and the need for governance reform leading to a more synodal church.
Advent is a great opportunity to think about how we might talk about Christmas and the coming of Christ into our lives. There is so much that is explicitly and particularly Christian about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. It is a great time to invite people into and to reflect on the Christian faith. But if we don’t do it with care and attention we may be talking a language that is as foreign as a Nellie Melba farewell to a house full of strangers.