In the fifth century, St. Augustine of Hippo noted that there are two kinds of sleep: one that is proper to the body and another that is proper to the soul. While recognizing the importance of bodily sleep, he always cautioned those under his pastoral care regarding the sleep of their souls: “The sleep of the soul consists in forgetting about God […], whereas the soul who has stayed awake knows who its maker is […].” (St. Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos, 62, 4)
Sacred Scripture (Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44) makes it clear that the Good News is not really about whether we’ve experienced enough bodily sleep. Rather, it is focused upon our spiritual preparedness. To paraphrase St. Augustine: “Have we fallen asleep in the things of God or have we continued our pursuit of knowing, loving, and serving Him?”
In the Gospel of Matthew (24:37-44), Jesus teaches the disciples with parables. First, they are given the image of those living in the time of Noah. Prior to the flood, all seemed well. The general atmosphere was “eat, drink, and be merry.” But then came the flood and its utter destruction. Second, Jesus provided them with images of two men and women: “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.” Finally, Jesus reminds them that “had the master of the house known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into.”
With these stories, Jesus seems to be saying to His disciples (and us): “Watch Out, something very big is happening around you. It requires not only your physical attention, but also your spiritual zeal.”
This instruction by Jesus requires intense focus and discipline. Today, it is made more difficult by the culture in which we live. With “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday,” our culture teaches that the days of Advent are really nothing more than the Christmas shopping season. By going along, we are somehow “preparing” ourselves for Christmas. A quick surf of internet headlines related to these events are instructive: Shoplifter Shot after Dragging Cop through Kohl’s Parking Lot; Woman Uses Stun Gun in Shopping Fight; and Shoppers Trampled in Race for $49 Tablet.
Outside of these unfortunate occurrences, however, most people shop for gifts that will be given to others. At face value, such activities uplift our culture and encourage us to step outside of ourselves. A good thing, don’t you think? Although we might enjoy the television advertisements, lights, parties, and hoopla of the season, we might ask: Is this what Jesus meant when He instructed us to stay awake? Is this the meaning of being watchful and prepared? Is this the meaning of Advent and Christmas?
Blessed John Henry Newman once described the Advent season like this. “It [Advent] is a time of waiting, it is a time of joy because the coming of Christ is not only a gift of grace and salvation but it is also a time of commitment because it motivates us to live the present as a time of responsibility and vigilance.” The German Jesuit priest, Fr. Alfred Delp, believed that Christians celebrate an Advent filled with multiple meanings. First, “Advent is…the time of man’s original religious instinct. Never will we experience our primeval homesickness for God more actively and alertly than in this season of…Advent wreaths.” Secondly, “Advent has a great historical meaning to the believer, the grateful remembrance of the millennia of God’s gracious care that has led man to the fulfillment of this longing for him.” Lastly, “the believing Christian celebrates Advent in the context of liturgy. By taking part in the inner life of the Church, he lets himself be caught up in that ‘fullness of time,’ which is both actually present and always returning, within the Church of Christ.”
During Advent, the Prophet Isaiah (2:1-5) beckons us to “…climb the Lord’s mountain…that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” Likewise, St. Paul (Romans 13:11-14) declares: “it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”
In our search for the Christ child, Wisdom calls us to be attentive. With our eyes wide open, we are challenged. In regard to our faith life, are we truly awake? Or, are we merely sleeping and going through the motions?