A Happy Surprise
We are told, both by St. Paul in Romans and by Christ himself in the gospel reading, to stay awake and be vigilant. This injunction merits close attention, because a misinterpretation could set us on the wrong path and discourage us, or worse.
When we hear the words, “So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come,” what is our reaction? Because if it is dread, something is wrong. And we are not referring to the virtue of fear of the Lord here, but actual dread. If these words of Christ chill us to the bone, the thought that he will come suddenly and catch us unawares, we need to reexamine attitudes. The first question that might be considered is: Do I love Jesus? This is an important one, for consider this: If a dear friend we had not seen in ten or more years suddenly showed up at our front door on a surprise visit, I suppose we would be overjoyed. Christ is more than a friend—he is our Savior, the Son of God—but the overall reaction of encountering him, albeit suddenly, should ideally be one of joy.
This brings up the question: What is vigilance, or wakefulness? First, consider what it is not: It is not a siege mentality, like watching for some malignant burglar to try and breach our home’s alarm system. It is not a state of prolonged tension. It is not a panicked anticipation of some horrible event.
Considered even superficially, the problem with these attitudes is twofold: First, they presume that God is harsh and is waiting patiently for the slightest misstep on our part in order to punish us. It might be helpful to remember in this case that the Lord is a lot kinder than I am and a lot kinder than you are. Second, these states of false vigilance cannot be maintained over the long haul without causing us either to have a nervous breakdown or to give up in disgust.
Rather, vigilance, in a Catholic sense, means looking around us at all times and doing the next right action as circumstances suggest. Now, heard in the context of a homily, with Gregorian chant floating through the air and puffs of fragrant incense dilating our senses, this can sound great—until we pull out of the parking lot on the way home. We can encounter people and circumstances that irk, rub us the wrong way, and are just a pain in general. How to be vigilant, how to do the next right action under these conditions?
I was recently at a beautiful gathering at someone’s home; they had laid out a sumptuous feedbag for a group of people, and while I tend to want to eat more than I should, if that happened, it was my fault, not my host’s. But—behold! There was someone else on the guest list—I will call him “Mr. Sour and Dour”—who did not approve. “How much all of this must have cost…” he grinched with bitter zeal, scandalized to his bone marrow lest anyone enjoy themselves. But what of the kindness, care and preparations the hosts had made to show their guests a good time? And when I was there hearing the comment, I thought, “Hmm, where have I heard words like this in the scriptures before? Ah yes, it was when Mary Magdalene poured expensive spikenard on our Lord and anointed him, and someone there opined 'Why all this waste?!'” Well, anyway, this zealous gentleman seems to have a free access to the panel of all the buttons necessary to push to put me into a bad mood. What’s the next right thing in a case like that? How does the Lord expect me or you to handle those things?
Pope Francis says, "Are you angry with someone? Pray for that person." That is what Christian love is. And these are perfect recommendations for all of us for Advent. And that doesn’t mean praying for the person in question to change. God knows what is necessary—all we need to do is pray. And, depending on our temperaments and/or circumstances, it might mean we find ourselves praying constantly throughout the day. If this happens, we have received a signal grace, and should get down on our knees and thank God from the bottom of our hearts. Because when life makes us uncomfortable, whether we are faced with our own foibles and weaknesses, or set off by the actions of others, if we treat every event of the day as an occasion to talk to Christ, to pray, to wish others well, then it will be an Advent well spent, and when the Son of Man returns, even at the moment of our death, it will be the most happy of surprises.