For most of my days as a Protestant Christian (and a lukewarm one at that), I really had no idea what the season of Advent was all about. At best, I understood it do be sort of a pre-Christmas build up. Kind of like putting the nativity scene in your front yard right after Thanksgiving so everyone can gaze upon it throughout the month of December. At worst, it was just another goofy thing that those Catholics did. Even after my journey toward the Church began, I still associated Advent only as a preparation for Christ's entry into the world through the Incarnation.
Thankfully, I now better understand the purpose and meaning of Advent as a season of penitential preparation for both Jesus's birth into the world on Christmas and His glorious return at the end of the age when all people "will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory." (Luke 21:27) It is this second part that really hit home with me during Mass this past Sunday (the first Sunday of Advent). In the Gospel reading, Jesus, after discussing the signs that will precede His second coming, warns the disciples to be on their guard for that day:
"Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man." (Luke 21:34-36)
As Jesus tells us, no one except the Father knows when "that day" will be. (Matthew 24:36) But we do know one thing for certain: each of us will die one day and "stand before the Son of Man" to be judged. As such, Jesus's warnings apply equally to all of us, even if we may no longer be walking the earth when He returns. Needless to say, direct warnings from God demand our attention. The aforementioned passage from St. Luke's Gospel contains a warning and an instruction: (1) do not become drowsy; and (2) be vigilant. Let's look at each of these and what they mean for us.
DO NOT BECOME DROWSY . . . AND LET THAT DAY CATCH YOU BY SURPRISE!
Jesus first warns us not to let our hearts become drowsy such that the day of His coming catch us by surprise like a trap. This theme of not becoming drowsy and staying awake is a recurrent one in the Gospels. For example, after the parable of the ten virgins, Jesus tells the disciples to "stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Matthew 25:13) Similarly, He said "'[b]e sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you must be prepared . . . ." (Matthew 24:43-44)
The idea of being awake for God can be seen in the Old Testament as well. For example, Isaiah tells the people "[a]wake, awake, put on strength, arm of the Lord! Awake as in the days of old, in ages long ago!" (Isaiah 51:9) And again, "[a]wake, awake, Zion; Put on your strength, Zion." (Isaiah 52:1) Further, in the Psalms, David speaks of awakening in relation to his closeness with God: "[a]wake, my soul . . . I will wake the dawn." (Psalm 57:9) "When I awake, let me be filled with your presence." (Psalm 17:15)
This idea of staying awake seems easy enough in theory, but much more difficult when applied to our everyday lives. Indeed, Jesus's own hand-picked apostles had trouble staying awake during some of the most important events of His earthly life. First, when Jesus took Peter, John and James up the mountain to witness the Transfiguration, the three apostles "had been overcome by sleep," and not until "becoming fully awake" did they see "his glory" and Moses and Elijah standing with him. (Luke 9:32). Once again, it was Peter, John and James who couldn't stay awake in the Garden of Gethsemane before our Lord's betrayal and arrest. (Matthew 26:36-46) Three times Jesus asked the apostles to stay awake and keep watch while he prayed, and three times he found them asleep. "[Y]ou could not keep watch with me for one hour?" he asked after finding them asleep the first time. (Matthew 26:40) He then said to them, "Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41) Their flesh was weak indeed, for Peter, John and James fell asleep twice more before Judas and the crowd arrived. (Matthew 26:42-47)
Like Peter, John and James, our flesh is weak as well. But what causes us to become drowsy and unable to stay awake? Jesus gives three specific examples: carousing, drunkenness, and the anxieties of daily life. (Luke 21:34) Carousing and drunkenness are mortal sins that directly cut us off from God, which, among other sins, St. Peter and St. Paul explicitly warn us about. (See e.g. Romans 13:13; 1 Peter 4:3; 1 Corinthians 6:10) Some of us struggle with these sins more than others, to be sure. But the third example Jesus gives--the anxieties of daily life--has universal application to us all.
Indeed, it is these anxieties in our daily lives that can cause us, often unknowingly, to become drowsy and lose sight of God. It could be large anxieties like stress at work, difficulties in our marriage, the challenges of parenting, financial problems, health issues or the like. Or perhaps its just the daily grind of responsibilities and challenges we face each day: chores around the house, finding time to exercise, running errands, shuttling the kids to school and extracurricular activities. No matter how big or small, these daily anxieties can add up to create a drowsiness or apathy toward our relationship with God.
Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said "[w]e do not lose our souls simply by doing bad things, we lose our souls by omission . . . and we usually are not conscious of the neglect." The daily anxieties are like a slow dripping faucet. We don't pay much attention to them at first. We say, "oh I'm just too busy today, I'll give God some time tomorrow." But tomorrow turns into the next day, or the next day after that . . . or never, and we fall asleep. Then one day, usually unexpectedly, God says "this night your life will be demanded of you," (Luke 12:20) and there we are standing before Jesus, caught by surprise like a trap.
But it doesn't have to be that way. As long as there is air in our lungs, there is still hope. There is still time to wake up. As St. Augustine tells us:
"Lift up your heart so that it will not rot on earth. You will not remain without treasure, but will possess without worries in heaven what you have to guard here in fear. And so let us wake up!" (Sermon 60, 7)
BE VIGILANT AND PRAY!