Once there was a group of monks known as the Sleepless Ones. In the year 430 a Christian named Alexander established a monastery, recruited three hundred men, and divided them into six groups. Each group, or choir, took turns praising God in song for four hours at a time. Around the clock, twenty-four hours a day, members of the community were singing while watching for the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world. They soon became known as the Sleepless Ones as they carried out Our Lord’s command to watch and pray (Tonne, Five-Minute Homilies, p. 59). Needless to say, Jesus did not return during their lifetimes, but that doesn’t mean their efforts were wasted–for Jesus was with them in their community of faith, in Scripture, and the Eucharist. Advent is not only a time of waiting for Christ, but also of recognizing that He is already present among us–for the God Who is “far away” is also very near.
There are two technical, theological terms which speak of how God is present to us. We say that He is immanent and transcendent. The word transcendent means that God is far beyond what we can see or imagine; He is up in heaven, and we can never hope to discover Him or reach Him on our own. However, God is also immanent–and this means that He is all around us, as present to us as the air we breathe, and eager to help us and to let us find Him if we but open our hearts to His grace. Christianity recognizes and celebrates this wonderful creative tension or balance: God is far above us, and also deep within us; He is infinite in majesty and power, and at the same time tender and loving in His care for us.
The Book of the Prophet Isaiah refers to God’s remoteness, saying, “Oh, that You would rend the heavens and come down,” and “You have hidden Your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.” The Old Testament prophets were well aware of not only the Lord’s immeasurable power and glory, but also of the way He was offended by human sinfulness; when the people turned away from God, He quite naturally began to seem very remote and distant. However, the prophets also reminded the people that the Lord is very merciful, ever willing to welcome back those who repent of their sins. Isaiah says, “You, Lord, are our Father…; we are the clay and You the potter: we are all the work of Your hands.” Those who surrender to God are able to experience a deep and intimate relationship with Him. In St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, it is important to remember that the Corinthians had originally been far from God because of their sins, but through their acceptance of Jesus Christ, they were richly endowed with every spiritual gift and allowed to share in God’s own life. Jesus came that we might become members of the family of God–but as He emphasizes in the Gospel, this requires us to be alert. Our Lord wants us to be awake–not only to His future coming, but also to our present opportunities to experience and respond to His grace. Our preparations for the future should not cause us to overlook Christ’s presence among us here and now.
During the French and Indian War, in the year 1759, the British captured the important city of Quebec from the French, ultimately giving them control of all Canada. The French had a very strong defensive position; the only way the British could get into position to launch an attack was to disembark from their ships at night and climb up a treacherous cliff in secrecy. A small French force could easily have prevented this, but the assigned guards became overconfident and careless, and on a night they were away from their posts and partying, the British came. The course of North American history changed because the city’s defenders failed to keep watch (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 605).
Many people make this same mistake in a spiritual sense. That’s why Jesus warns us to “Stay awake!” This is a symbolic way of saying we must be alert to our opportunities and our responsibilities, like servants awaiting their master’s return. On the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus once more warned us through His description of the Last Judgment, when the sheep will be separated from the goats on the basis of how they responded, or failed to respond, to the needs of people around them. And as we have witnessed in the parable of the talents, the only way we can truly be on guard and ready for death and judgment is by using God’s gifts and by loving Him and the people around us. This means remembering that religion is not something reserved for special occasions; it’s meant to be a natural part of life, and something we live out all through the week, not just on Sunday. We should talk to God throughout the day, try to do everything and offer everything for His glory, and constantly remind ourselves of His presence–especially in the people around us. If we look upon every other person as a brother or sister in Christ, treating him or her with love and respect, our encounter with the Lord at the moment of death will be a joyful homecoming, not an ominous day of reckoning.
The reason Jesus has to tell us “Stay awake!” is that so many people today are spiritually asleep, giving little thought to faith and little time to God. Those who think God is far away, who believe that He doesn’t see or care about what they’re doing, and who place all their hopes in this world, will be tragically disappointed. Our all-powerful, all-knowing, transcendent God is also with us here and now–in this Eucharist, in the person sitting next to you, and in the simple, wholesome activities and events you’ll experience this day.
The motto of the state of Michigan is:
If you seek a beautiful peninsula, look around you.
We might say that the motto of God’s kingdom is very similar:
If you seek the kingdom of heaven, be alert and be ready, for it is all around you.
As long as we open our eyes and our hearts, we will not only be ready for Christ’s coming in the future, but we will in some way share in His kingdom even now.