Awake and Aware for the Challenge and the Triumph
In the annals of the extremely foolish things that I have done in my life, at least those I’m willing to share with you, the worst was not falling down a mountain a few years ago, although that was certainly up there. The worst was something that took place way back when I was in my early twenties, back in the dark ages, before cell phones and I-pods. I was driving from Tampa to New Jersey with two other seminarians. We were taking turns behind the wheel, and were not pushing it, but I was definitely more tired than I thought I was. I can remember saying to myself that “I'm OK,” and I can remember trying to convince myself that I only had to hang in there for another hour. And then, for a split second, I fell asleep, driving. Not too bright to say the least. Also, it was absolutely frightening. Thank God, but the fellow next to me started calling out, "Joe, Joe". I opened my eyes, always a good thing to do when driving, and I saw that I was headed towards oncoming traffic. I veered the car back in my lane, then did what I should have done an hour earlier. I pulled over and let someone else drive. I was lucky to be alive, a thought shared at the time by the other fellows in the car.
Our spiritual life is like driving a car. We can be going about our business, attempting to live our faith, but taking things for granted. Warning signs are often ignored. These signs might be slacking off from church attendance, letting some things into our homes or lives that are questionable, inappropriate or even unchristian. Maybe we are exercising less control over our tempers. Or perhaps, we are not making as much time for prayer as we need. Suddenly, we fall asleep. Temptation is there, but we don't have enough spiritual energy to resist. If we are blessed, we wake up in time to realize that we are destroying the spiritual life of our baptism. But it could happen that we don't wake up and sleep forever in our sins, spiritually dead.
Perhaps we fall asleep missing the opportunities the Lord provides for us to experience His Presence and provide His Presence, His Love and Compassion, to others. Sometimes we get so involved in what we are doing that we forget why we are doing it. You know me. I’m a steamroller when it comes to preparing everything for one of our celebrations. How many of you have smiled at me, or said “Hi” and I haven’t even noticed? That’s what I mean, getting so involved with what I am doing that I forget why I am doing it. Moms and Dads can do this quite often too. A Mom or Dad can be so busy caring for the family that he or she misses the opportunity to be with the family. Or we can be so determined to reach out to Christ in strangers and experience His Presence in those whom we do not know, that we ignore His Presence in our brother and sister, our parents or our children.
We need to stay awake.
“Stay awake” is the theme for this First Sunday of Advent. The Master of the house is the Lord. His coming is at the end of our lives to determine our capacity to receive an infinite share of His love. If He come and finds us ready and waiting, the door of our life open to His Presence, then we have nothing to worry about. If He comes and finds us spiritually asleep with the doors of our lives firmly closed to Him, then we face an eternity of coldness and hatred, an eternity without love. That is what hell is.
Each of us has a unique set of warning signals telling us we are liable to doze off, or fall into temptation. It may be when people say certain things to us. It may be when we are in certain situations. It may even be at particular times of the year. Many people are more at edge in February and March; others during the Christmas season; still others in the summer. We may not be at our best when certain people come into our lives, like relatives, people we work with, etc. We have to know where temptations lie and deal with them. We have to stay awake or the Lord will come when we least expect, and find himself shut out of our lives.
And so, we watch. We watch for the signs of the spiritual in our lives. We watch for the presence of Christ. Without the spiritual, our lives would be self-destructive. Without the spiritual we wander like the people of the first reading from Isaiah. They wandered aimlessly. They got themselves into all sorts of trouble. Possessions, selfishness, arrogance, all dominated their lives and destroyed them. A main theme of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, is that left to their own devices, people can easily become self-destructive. This applies to people of all epochs, including us. Without the spiritual we also become materialistic, selfish, and arrogant. Without the spiritual we lose the capacity to love. We rush to satiate our needs, but remain empty because only God can complete our being, only God can fill our emptiness. Without Christ we also become self-destructive.
And so we stay awake, and we watch. We watch for the Divine Healer to come and lead us into His Love. We watch for the times, more than we could imagine, when God extends His Love to us. We watch for the times when we serve His Love by serving others. We watch for the opportunities to unite ourselves closer to His Love through prayer and sacrifice. We wait. We watch. We watch for opportunities to grow. Advent, the time of watching reminds us that our entire lives must be a watching for ways that we can grow more spiritual, grow closer to Christ.
We long for Jesus’ presence. If we deny this need, this necessity for God to be in our lives, then we chance becoming useless shells, Christians on the outside, but not much on the inside. But if we fight off our inclination to embrace chaos, if we fight off being overwhelmed by the fluff of Christmas and allow our need for Christ to transform our lives, then we can be what He created us to be, images of His Love on earth. We can be whole. We can be Christians.
Advent is the season of hope. The promise of the prophets will be fulfilled. The Messiah will come to return the world to God’s original plan. Our thirst for the Messiah will be quenched not just on December 25th, but every day of our lives.
We stay awake.
To the extent that we do this well, to the extent that our lives are a celebration of the presence of Christ in the world, to that extent, our entire lives are a celebration of Christmas.