Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, B Cycle
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
The word for watch in the Greek of the New Testament, as in the Latin version (which is the basis for the readings in the lectionary) means “stay awake,” or more poetically, “keep vigil.” This meaning is clear enough in the translation we are using since “to be watchful” or “watch” is contrasted with sleeping, whatever time of day it may be.
In order to understand what it means and why it is spiritually important to stay awake, it is necessary to know what it means to be asleep. The ancients had a rather precise understanding: they understood sleep, as it were, from the top down; that is, extending from some condition of the soul and then influencing the body. In our more modern conception we tend to view sleep simply as a bodily condition, and do not emphasize the condition of the soul of the sleeper. That is why sleep and waking as metaphors tend to have a more spiritual sense in ancient teaching and documents than in more recent teachings. Contemporary spiritual psychology speaks more of “mindfulness” than of wakefulness or watchfulness.
In the classic understanding of human nature, sleep is understood as a state in which the soul’s internal sense, which collates and combines the various impressions of the external senses, ceases to function with regard to new impressions. This means that although the external senses can still operate, their information is not united into a unified whole in order to be known clearly. Thus the soul’s other internal senses, like imagination and memory, can take off and go in any direction at all with what has been previously known, even as the soul is very weak in receiving any outward impulses. We experience this in our dreams.
But the external senses are not offering us any reliable new information, since their perceptions are not being gathered into one by the internal sense that unites into coherent precepts the various things heard and seen and smelt and tasted and touched. Thus we do not remember what went on around us while we were sleeping. To be wakeful or watchful is thus to be able to take in what goes on around us by the power of our soul that unites outer perception to inner.
A spiritual state of wakefulness or watchfulness is thus a state of integrity or continuity between the outer and the inner perception, and it flows from the inner perception as the more perfect and powerful. A person who is spiritually asleep is not using his inner powers of soul to bring together his outer experience. Thus, his knowledge and desires lack coherence and wholeness, and he may be caught unaware at any moment. He lacks a complete picture of what is going on around him.
What is the spiritual inner sense that is like our natural inner sense powers? Evidently it is the power of faith working through love: the knowledge of the Faith and the love of God and neighbor that unite and give order and meaning to all the many experiences we have of others and the outer world. In simple terms, it is our active faith and love toward Jesus the Savior, which is always looking for his coming.
In this holy season of Advent we are constantly being reminded to keep awake and ready for the coming of the Savior. If we are recollected within, preferring to dwell on the truths of faith and the love of God, then our outer experiences will be understood in the true light; we will know how to love and will not be bewildered by all the many things that life tosses our way.
The best way to maintain this inner wakefulness is, on the positive side, through the practice of prayer. This means having a preference for thinking about and longing for the wonderful things, the mysteries and promises revealed by our Savior, which we can see revealed in Sacred Scripture and the lives of the saints. A serious daily rosary would begin to bring this about. Another way would be some quiet adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. Let’s commit daily to pondering within ourselves the mysteries of faith as a new Church year begins this Advent.
On the negative side, this inner wakefulness means shutting down the noise and distraction of the many media we use, which do not unify our inner gaze and longing for happiness but rather stir up our passions and trouble us, and ultimately make us sad and dissatisfied. So let’s turn off those things for a good time each day, and set up a discipline that will enable us to turn our hearts inward. Only in this way can we wisely and reliably interpret all our numerous outer experiences, and be ready to notice the Lord’s arrival among us.
The Savior tells us the book of Revelation, “Behold I stand at the door and knock, and if any man hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to him.” In order to hear the knock and see the door, we must be awake. A loud knocking is a good way to wake someone up from sleep. May the Savior knock loudly so as to waken our sleepy hearts!