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A Time to Stay Awake

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

Did you hear about the end of the world? The end of the world that was supposed to happen in late September of this year? Oh, you didn’t hear about it? Well, since I’m writing this article in early October and you’re reading it later than that, I guess the details aren’t too relevant.

Someone’s private revelation about stars and constellations and—well, anyway, here we all still are. Chalk up one more for the “private-revelations-that-should-have-stayed-private” file.

The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (Mk 13:33-37) is all about staying awake because we don’t know when the end will come. It’s a short Gospel, like most of Mark’s Gospel, and the message is pretty simple: What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake (v. 37).

What does that mean, anyway? What is this vigilance we are called to as Christians? Does it mean being on the lookout for every private revelation foretelling the end of the world?

Does it mean working oneself up into a state of perpetual anxiety about all the signs in the Book of Revelation and about all the wars and rumors of wars and earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes of this year (or any year) that are “proof positive” that the Second Coming is just around the corner?

Or is it about obsessively following the news? We live in a 24-hour news cycle, fueled by social media and what must be approaching a near-infinite number of web sites.

And hey, if you don’t like the content or tone of CNN, CBC, CBS, ABC, Fox News, or The New York Times or whatever major news sources are in your country, there is no shortage of alternative voices.

Is vigilance a matter of knowing every last detail about every big and little event going on in every corner of the world today?

Is vigilance a matter of getting past the media noise and spin to get to the Real Truth™ peddled by whoever you decide is trustworthy?

Is vigilance a matter of having the “right” political opinions and pursuing them in the public sphere in an aggressive fashion?

And if the vigilance we are called to is not any of these things—obsession with end-time prophecies or being a news junkie—what is it?

It seems to me that gospel vigilance is a matter of being ready, at any time, for the coming of the Lord Jesus. It is not about trying to figure out when that time is going to come, so we can be especially ready then—and (I guess?) not especially concerned with our readiness beforehand.

It certainly isn’t about living in anxiety about North Korea or Russia or whatever crisis is in the current news, and it can’t possibly be about having the “right” political opinions and social views, as dictated by the prevailing norms and trends of the zeitgeist or spirit of the age (such a conformist attitude being completely at variance with the whole ethos of the Gospel).

No, it’s about being ready, and staying ready, for Jesus. Jesus coming at the end of the world, coming to judge the living and the dead. And also, Jesus coming today, in our brothers and sisters, the poor one at the door, the needy one standing before you.

What do they need? You won’t know if you’re not paying attention. Paying attention is keeping awake. And the Lord himself tells us elsewhere (Matt 25: 31-46, to be precise) that our attentiveness to Christ in the poor one today is precisely the same as the attentiveness needed for his coming in glory tomorrow.

What makes us not pay attention, then? What takes us away from Jesus, both the Lord in his proper self and being, the God who stands before us as Lord and Master of our lives, and the Jesus coming to us in the guise of our neighbor, the Lord who is the poor one and the stranger?

Vigilance means a watchfulness over the movements of our thoughts and our hearts and over the innate tendencies all of us have to move away from faith, hope, and charity and towards selfishness.

What gets in the way may be a lack of discipline over our appetites, over our pursuit of food, drink, sex, or money. It may be a matter of unforgiveness and bitter resentment or a fixation on getting our own way.

It may be following any of the pathways of pride and vainglory or the pursuit of our own mastery and control of life.

Any of these can be raging away in us, drawing our attention, our vigilance, away from the Lord and his constant coming in our lives and towards a million vain creatures and their false promises of happiness.

So it is Advent, the season of the Lord’s coming. Keep awake! Keep ready. Keep working on repenting of all the things that make us “fall asleep,” fall away from this beautiful faithful vigilance towards God.

Above all, keep turning your face, mind, and heart towards the Lord who comes to us not only in glory in the fullness of time, and not only in the guise of the poor and the needy, but in his Incarnate humanity—the Babe in the manger, the Man on the cross, the Body and Blood on the altar, the life in our soul.

In the end, vigilance wins its goal precisely in this, that we grow captivated by the beauty of the Lord and look, not with fear, anxiety, or dread, for his coming, but with eager longing and expectation that the One we have come to love has come, is coming, will come.

At his coming, all flesh will rejoice, all darkness will be put to flight, and every tear will be wiped away in the kingdom of heaven.