First Sunday of Advent, Year C
Reading: Luke 21·25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.
“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.”
Standout words or phrases
perplexed, die of fright, stand erect and raise your heads, do not become drowsy, surprise, be vigilant, tribulations
It has been 2000 years, and our Lord has not returned.
This may well have surprised the evangelist and his first readers; they dwelled in a world where it may well have seemed that these predictions were being fulfilled. Some scholars believe that one reason Nero’s savage persecution of the Christians was popular among Romans was the open rejoicing of many Christians who concluded wrongly during the fire that Christ’s return was imminent. Jerusalem itself was besieged by armies and dismantled, with the leader of the rebellion claiming to be the Messiah. Earthquakes are a commonplace of the Mediterranean world.
Ancient Christians who fell prey to this temptation have good company today. Many of us are familiar with a certain breed of Christian who pays constant attention to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In my youth, one local realtor used his office billboard on one of the two major arteries through town to advertise that the “Rapture [would be the] major event of the 90s.” Certain sects have their origins in the conviction that Jesus was about to return during the 19th century; the Millerites even assembled on a mountain to await his return and subsequently referred to this as The Great Disappointment. One group publishes a tract that, for many decades, insisted that the world would end in some way connected with the year 1914.
It is easy to laugh at those who are wrong, decade after decade. On the other hand, what makes people loyal to such organizations? Surely some of it is that they have a reputation for taking care of each other, whereas mainstream Christianity seems to have lost that reputation, at least if we judge by how the mainstream culture’s attitude has changed incredibly.
Have we become drowsy? The roll of those the media terms “devout Christians,” whose devotion to carousing and drunkenness is essentially indistinguishable from that of devout non-Christians is unadmirably long. Others, by contrast, may act superficially pious, but a consideration of their obsessions with the anxieties of daily life make it plain that they are more content with these than with genuine faith in God and Providence. All too many seem to prefer not so much the churches that enshrine prayer and worship as those that enshrine sedation and entertainment, in the form of a carousing and spiritual drunkenness that disdains faith with serious content, but focuses almost exclusively on the concerns of this world; i.e., the anxieties of daily life.
And we laugh at those who would keep vigil. It is, perhaps, no more certain a sign of Satan’s smoke in the Church that we allow him to use us to mock those who try, however incorrectly, to keep vigil for the Lord whom we should desire more than life itself. What reflects love more accurately: so great a desire to be reunited with the Beloved that we mistake His coming? or not to long at all, and to live as if we do not desired to please the Beloved?
The dilemma is false, of course, but that is beside the point.
The Gospel suggests that our attitude should be otherwise. Early Christians frequently rose at night to keep vigil, a practice preserved by monks even today in the service called “Matins”. Thomas Merton writes of this in his poem, The Quickening of St. John the Baptist, memorably adapted by John Michael Talbot:
Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare,
Planted in the night of contemplation,
Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.
Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied sermon.
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
Do you wish, fellow Christian, to keep vigil? There is no need for so great a work; prayer takes but a moment; we need merely turn our hearts to God. When words are wanting, the spirit’s groans will do — though a Psalm or two can also help. But we are to keep watch and to pray ceaselessly, as our Lord tells us in the Gospel above and the Scriptures tell us elsewhere and repeatedly. Though we may not see the end times in our lifetime, our own death will surely overtake us in due course, and the best way to welcome them is to await them with the confident joy of faith.