‘And what I say to you, I say to all: Stay awake!’
Today Advent begins. It begins with a shout, with a cry – with Christ crying out: ‘Stay awake!’ Advent is a wake-up call. Four times in today’s Gospel, we hear that phrase ‘Stay awake’.
Not long after saying these very words, our Lord found himself in the Garden of Gethsemane, in agony, struggling to accept his Father’s will. And Peter, James and John fell asleep. They fell asleep at the very moment Jesus could have done with their comfort. But I don’t think our Lord’s ‘Stay awake’ is really about avoiding sleep. He’s not calling for all-night vigils (not regularly anyway!) or suggesting we leave our beds on the pavement for the Council to take them away. He’s not just talking about literal sleep.
‘Stay awake!’ What does it mean, then?
Surely, don’t get absorbed by things. That’s falling asleep. That’s losing consciousness to everything else. How easily we are absorbed: by our feelings, our health problems, our work, our computers, with the people around us, and so on. Of course, in one sense, we have to be, we’re meant to be. But not so we’re all–absorbed by them. Not so that there’s nothing of us left outside those things. Not so that when they pass, as they will, we just crumple and fold. That’s being asleep. That’s losing our soul. Because these things are not God. They’re not the last things, the ultimate, final things, the really real things. Someone once asked a teenager, ‘What do you want to be?’ ‘Famous’, she said. ‘Famous for what?’ ‘Oh, just famous!’
In the middle of today’s Gospel, there’s a mini-parable. There’s a man, a lord of the manor. He goes away on business. He leaves his servants in charge, each with his own task. But he tells the doorkeeper to stay awake for when he comes back – comes back in the night, at an unknown hour, unexpectedly.
Each of us is a servant of the Lord. Each of us is a member of society and of the household of the faith. Each of us has a task to do. And we’re meant to do it. It’s part of our obedience. But while we do it, while we’re in the kitchen or the office or the grounds, there must be a part of us that’s doorkeeper too, part of us with our nose pressed against the window watching for lights on the road, or, if you like, with a mobile in our pocket waiting for the call. So we do our allotted work, we do it the best we can, we do it for the Lord and not for men, we try to put our hearts into it. But we don’t let ourselves be completely identified with it, be all-absorbed by it. There’s something in us which keeps detached, aloof, inwardly free, a little bit apart, turned elsewhere. God has given us two eyes: one for this world, but another for heaven, for the Lord.
Here’s another way of putting it. Christ, of course, is the Lord of the manor. At some point in the long night of history, he will come back. And the household is his Church. And the servants with their different tasks are us, laity, clergy. But who keeps the doors? Pope Francis gives us a clue. He has declared this year, beginning today, the Year of the Consecrated Life. And in the household of the Church, it is the consecrated – sisters, monks, nuns and so forth – who are the doorkeepers. I know they also do specific things – teaching or nursing or missionary work and so on – but most of all they keep the door. Most of all they try not to let the world and its demands all-absorb them, and on behalf of us all they wait for the Lord to come back and transfigure the world according to the heart of God. And that’s why contemplative religious especially do hold vigils, do wake up at midnight or cockcrow or dawn, watching the road that runs from heaven to earth. And here’s the point. (You’ll say, I would say this, wouldn’t I? But I’ll still say it.) In each of us, there should be something of this doorkeeper, something of the monk or nun, something of the contemplative. In fact there already is. It’s part of our human nature. It’s part of being made in the image and likeness of God. We can never be satisfied merely with what’s around us. We have to look beyond. And as Christians we know Who is beyond.
‘The world is too much with us’, said William Wordsworth. It certainly is. The world seems never more worldly than at this time of year. And it’s so easy to let it absorb us. Advent says, ‘Stay awake!’ Do what you have to do, but keep the door as well. Advent says, ‘Stay awake!’ Advent says, ‘Pray!’ Stand a little more at the window of prayer, even only three more minutes a day. At the very least, it helps us keep sane while the world goes mad. Yes, Advent prays. Let’s pray with her.
‘To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.’
‘Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down.’
‘Let us see, O Lord, your mercy and give us your saving help.’
‘God of hosts bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.’ Amen.