What are we waiting for?
First Sunday of Advent. Fr Sam Burke considers the Lord’s command to stay awake.
A slightly irreverent confession: whenever I hear today’s Gospel passage, I cannot help but think of a scene from Mr. Bean. The one which comes to mind is where Bean is trying to stay awake in Church while listening to a long, boring sermon. With Rowan Atkinson’s typical comedic flair, try as Bean might to stay awake, he simply can’t help dozing off. We’ve all felt like that, haven’t we? Some of you may even be presently experiencing something of that same somniferous feeling, in fact.
Well, it’s one thing falling asleep in church — especially in mitigating circumstances — but it’s quite another thing falling asleep in life, more generally. By which I mean to say that there’s a way of merely sleepwalking through the short time we have on this planet, of inattentively riding the ups and downs that come our way, of cruising through on a kind of autopilot, and all the while remaining disengaged from God’s grace in our lives. Most of us are prone to this kind of spiritual stupor, if we’re honest.
To the sleeper lurking in each of us, Jesus now speaks in rousing terms, on the First Sunday of Advent: “stay awake… if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep…Stay awake!”
Jesus addresses this warning in the first instance to the four disciples accompanying him: Peter, James, John and Andrew. Later, might these words have been ringing in the ears of three of the four same disciples when they failed to stay awake in Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane? I should think so. When he needed his friends most, they were getting in some shut-eye. Thus Jesus who had attracted vast crowds and a close group of loyal friends, began his Passion tragically alone.
The Gospel passage starts as a private instruction to his disciples but becomes by its close a message declared as a warning “to all”, i.e. all his disciples for all time — you and me in this very moment. So how are we to make sense of Jesus’ instruction to stay awake here and now, disciples in the twenty first century?
First, we must understand why we’re staying awake at all. Like lawyers, we should identify the motive. Our motive is at once straightforward and rather terrifying: we are waiting for judgement. If that sounds too alarming, let me add that we await God’s mercy besides, which St. Thomas Aquinas tells us goes not against justice but beyond it. As sinners, we cry out to God in repentance with the Psalmist “Lord of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved”.
Second, we need to know what – or rather who – we’re waiting for. We’re waiting for Jesus, of course. But there are two senses in which we wait in Advent. First, any child will tell you that we wait to celebrate Christmas. We joyfully look back to commemorate His first coming, which was humble and redemptive; a past event with a present benefit. And we wait in a second sense: we wait looking forward to His second coming in the future, which unlike the Incarnation, will be dramatic and judgemental as last Sunday’s Gospel vividly reminded us.
Third, it’s important to know how we are to wait. We are to have faith in God’s grace to lead spotless lives. St. Paul assures the Corinthians in the Second Reading “you will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed; and he will keep you steady and without blame until the last day”. Again, recall last Sunday’s Gospel: the sheep were favoured because of their service of the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned. Service of the needy is service of Christ.
Ultimately, there is no room for complacency in the Christian life, the kind that a slovenly sleepy disposition might represent. Rather, to be awake is to be alive in faith. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light”. Paul’s words are a rallying call, as well as a helpful spur to get out of bed on dark midwinter mornings.
Advent presents us all with a welcome opportunity to snap out of our slumber. It’s a chance to re-engage with the sheer urgency of what Jesus has to say. It’s a time to wake up to the joy that the Gospel entails and to eagerly await His promised return. Since His return couldn’t come soon enough, as we stay awake we join in Isaiah’s eager anticipation, “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down!”
Let’s be ready and awake when he does.