Back when I was training for the priesthood, I discovered at one point that one of the lecturers had reported me to the other members of staff. What had happened was, that I was falling asleep during lectures. The reason I had been falling asleep was because I had been going to a Youth 2000 prayer group at Birmingham University, and after the prayer meeting, they would then open the bar. It wouldn’t have looked very good if we had all just left straight after the meeting. We didn’t want to be rude. But I do remember someone else from our group saying to me on one occasion, “It’s half past ten. We need to get back.” The first item in the seminary timetable most mornings was at 7:15 am. It was a matter of getting my priorities right and keeping things in balance.
One thing you might have spotted in today’s Gospel is that Our Lord says “stay awake” three times. It’s like we’re nodding off and he keeps on trying to wake us up. But that’s the whole point. Being faithful to the Lord, including in today’s world, requires stamina, and it’s no good falling asleep. Talking of trying to keep awake, before becoming a priest I used to go to Walsingham for Youth 2000’s summer festival, and some years I also volunteered to help with security. As part of that, for one day over the retreat, your team had to do the night duty. It was no good staying in the office. The best way to keep awake was to do regular patrols. Otherwise you might find yourself being woken up by the walkie-talkie.
The first reading today shows what it’s like when we fall asleep, not literally, but metaphorically speaking:
“Why, Lord, leave us to stray from your ways
and harden our hearts against fearing you?
… No one invoked your name
or roused himself to catch hold of you.
For you hid your face from us
and gave us up to the power of our sins.”
God wants us to take the initiative for ourselves, and not to become lazy and fall asleep. You know what it’s like if you get woken up in the middle of the night and you are just so tired you haven’t even got the energy to look and see what time it is. But after a good night’s sleep you have energy to get up straight away. Which of these two states reflect our spiritual life? So, after the first reading shows us what not to do and how things can go wrong, the second reading gives us an example of how things can be when we put God first:
“I never stop thanking God for all the graces you have received through Jesus Christ. I thank him that you have been enriched in so many ways … the witness to Christ has indeed been strong among you … and he will keep you steady and without blame until the last day … and God is faithful.”
In the first reading they seem to be slightly blaming God for the way things had fallen apart, although they were to blame, and in the second reading their faith put into action is bearing fruit and they are glorifying God for all they have seen and heard. Which one of those two images do we want to buy into?
Today, we begin Advent. If we choose the second option, then if Our Lord returns in our lifetime, we should have nothing to fear.