Friday, November 23, 2007
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.’” (Matthew 24:42)
“SOUL-SURFING” – December 2, 2007
First Sunday of Advent
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
“A [Muncie, Indiana] noisy parrot that likes to imitate sounds helped save a man and his son from a house fire by mocking a smoke alarm, the bird's owner says. Shannon Conwell, 33, said he and his 9-year-old son fell asleep on the couch while watching a movie. They awoke about 3 AM to find their home on fire after hearing the family's Amazon parrot, Peanut, imitating a fire alarm. ‘He was really screaming his head off,’ Conwell said. ‘I grabbed my son and my bird, and got out of the house.’ The fire destroyed the home's dining room, kitchen and bedroom.” (Associated Press, October 23, 2007)
Today the church begins a new liturgical year, the season of Advent a preparation for God coming in the flesh as Jesus to dwell with us. In the gospel passage we hear this day, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.’” (Matthew 24:42) Had Shannon Conwell and his son heeded this advice, perhaps they’d not now have a burned out house. But they did fall asleep, and save for the vigilance of Peanut the parrot, father and son may well have perished.
Jesus reminds us today that we, too, may be in mortal peril, our lives as threatened as Shannon’s and his son’s. The big difference, of course, is that they were truly asleep as their house burned. Most of us, on the other hand, are sleep-walkers, giving the convincing appearance of alertness as we amble through our days with little awareness of where our somnolent ambling is taking us. And so, on this first Sunday in Advent, Jesus says to us what he said to his first disciples, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matthew 24:42)
Of course, not one of us, I’m guessing, wants to confess to sleep-walking. How could it be, we ask ourselves? I am a conscientious and ethical professional; I come home each night attentive and sensitive to the needs of my spouse and kids; I make time every month to volunteer at the local homeless shelter; I even give generously to my church. Where do you get off calling me a sleep-walker? And even to such a good person, Jesus says, “Wake up!”
It’s easy to get into a pattern of living that has all the appearance of spiritual wakefulness; it’s easy to look good. Watch any TV re-run of “Law and Order” and you’ll meet such characters! Well, that’s sometimes us, though our self-delusions will likely never be dramatic enough for TV. It’s a more subtle thing to which Jesus refers. This day he invites us to consider a question both simple and profound: In how many moments of my day am I aware of God within me and within others? That’s the measure of wakefulness to which Jesus calls us.
The truth is, though we all aspire to such a life of spiritual alertness, the busyness of just surviving the day distracts us from our best intentions to live every moment of each day with Jesus. Who could possibly sustain such mindfulness? Why, not even the greatest saints achieved this! Still, Jesus says, “Wake up!” While Shannon Conwell and his young son had Peanut the parrot to wake them just in time to avoid eternal slumber, I can still hear the voice of Daughter of Charity Sister Eleanor Doyle calling me to wakefulness long since buried under a pile of papers.
1990 found me beginning a new position as Director of Pastoral Care at St. Vincent’s Medical Center, Bridgeport, Connecticut. While I had fully expected to spend some hours each day at my desk with administrative tasks before getting out to visit patients and families, I couldn’t have guessed that it would actually be the rare day I got out of the office at all, so consuming were the rounds of meetings and subsequent required paperwork. At 8 AM on an unusually bad morning, nearly despondent at facing another day of seeming nonsensical bureaucracy, a woman’s firm voice came over the hospital public address system. “As we begin our day, let us call to mind the presence of God,” prayed Sr. Eleanor. Then followed a simple prayer of no more than 15 seconds reminding patients, families and staff members that God was with them in whatever joys, sorrows and challenges they were to face that day. I remember at her prayer’s conclusion looking down at the pile of papers on my desk and asking God to take upon himself the day’s burden that seemed just too heavy for me. I believe he did.
In fact, the broadcasting of morning and evening prayers throughout the hospital had long since become tradition at St. Vincent’s. At 8 AM and 8 PM every single day, one of the Daughters of Charity would, with microphone in hand, remind everyone in the hospital of God’s living, loving and saving presence. Though the disembodied voice descending from somewhere in the ceiling was decidedly feminine, clearly it was God calling us to renewed alertness, bidding us wake up to live in the fulfillment of his promise: “I am with you always.”
Not many years after we first met, Sr. Eleanor went to God, but the memory of her 8 AM prayer remains a clarion, its daily call more insistent than the alarm clock beside my bed. “As we begin our day, let us call to mind the presence of God.” Indeed, this is the wakefulness to which Jesus calls us this new Advent.
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