I was kindly invited out for a pre-Christmas meal this week in a city centre restaurant. We arrived and got ourselves settled in a lovely booth. We selected our starters and main courses and ordered some wine. The starters came and looked delicious, but when we were about half way through the fire alarm went off. For a time, nobody moved, the whole restaurant just kept on eating, presuming it to be a false alarm that would be switched off at any minute. But then the staff came around and asked us to make our way outside into St. Vincent Street. So, off we went, very calmly, no rush or panic at all. The mood outside was jocular, although we were wondering if we were going to be able to continue our meal or not. Then three fire engines arrived and out piled a host of firemen, and into the restaurant through what I presumed was the service entrance. After about 20 minutes they re-emerged through the front door of the restaurant, and before too long we were invited back into the restaurant where we had fresh starters brought to the table and the offer of a free drink at the end of the meal. It was all very painless, although we never did find out what caused the alarm to go off.
The last time I had that kind of experience was on my way to Malawi to represent our Provincial at the ordination of a young Malawian Passionist, Patrick Mphepo. I flew to London Heathrow and was scheduled to transfer on to a flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where I would pick up a connection to Blantyre in Malawi, named after Blantyre in South Lanarkshire, birthplace of David Livingstone. Unfortunately, the flight from Heathrow to Nairobi was delayed and by the time we landed I had missed my flight to Blantyre. There was no flight then until the next morning which meant we had to go through customs and security to be put up in a hotel near the airport for the night. On the minibus taking us to the hotel I got talking to a lovely family, the mother of which just happened to be the daughter of the former Celtic player, Ian Young, whom I saw playing many times in the early 1960’s.
We had a big chunk of the day still to kill, so I joined the family on a trip to the Giraffe Centre, created by the African Fund for Endangered Wildlife, where the children, and adults, delighted in ascending high platforms and have the gentle giraffes come and eat of our hands; and then on to the Karen Blixen Museum at the place named after her. She was the author of the book Out of Africa, her own autobiography, later made into a film starring Meryl Streep. We returned to the hotel and had a meal together, and then to bed as we had a very early start next morning and would have to go through all the security procedures again. Unfortunately, at 2 o’clock in the morning, the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the hotel. After about an hour we were allowed back in again but sleep proved elusive as I was afraid of oversleeping and missing the flight again. This proved wise as the alarm call I had booked at the hotel never came. Eventually I got to Blantyre and went straight to the cathedral. The Mass had already started so I decided just to sit quietly in the congregation and greet the young newly ordained Passionist afterwards. At least I would be able to concelebrate his first mass at his home village the next day. However, the ordaining bishop spotted me and called me forward to sit on the sanctuary with the rest of the priests, which I had to do in secular clothing, feeling rather uncomfortable. A feast followed and later that night I slept like a log. The next day I was collected and taken to the village where Fr. Patrick’s first Mass was being held. This time I was able to vest and concelebrate properly, along with Fr. Terence, whom many will remember from St. Mungo’s. Fr. Terence had travelled down with some students from Zambia, where he was staying at the time. So, all in all, despite missed flights and fire alarms, I enjoyed the trip immensely, and I have great memories of the days that followed, and of the beautiful country and people of Malawi.
I suppose we could look at the Season of Advent as a kind of alarm call. Certainly, it’s a wake-up call, and a timely warning to get our lives in order so as to be ready, in each and every moment, to meet Christ face to face, when He comes again. Alarms go off for a reason, and it’s best to heed them.
Here are a few Advent thoughts from Pope St. John Paul ll.
“It is necessary to understand that the whole of our life must be an ‘advent,’ a vigilant awaiting of the final coming of Christ. To predispose our mind to welcome the Lord who, as we say in the Creed, one day will come to judge the living and the dead, we must learn to recognize him as present in the events of daily life. Therefore, Advent is, so to speak, an intense training that directs us decisively toward him who already came, who will come, and who comes continuously”.