Mass Readings for the 1st Sunday in Advent:
Isaiah 2.1-5 Psalm 122.1-9 Romans 13.11-14 Matthew 24.37-44
“Staying awake” and being “awake” is a recurring theme in the gospels. Jesus really emphasizes this idea through many of his parables and in this more direct teaching we hear today. So, we should know what is meant by being “awake”, especially as we live in a time of “wokeness” – “woke” ideology claims to be about a true awareness of the world that give those who are woke a privileged perspective: they claim they see the world for what it is, and so, they know better how to remedy its problems.
And I can understand the attractiveness of wokeness because there is quite a bit of truth contained in the observations that it makes about the world. And in that, the Christian who is “awake” and the person who says he is “woke” do resemble each other because, indeed, they are aware of the brokenness of this world, the injustice, exploitation, hate, violence, etc. we see around us.
Yet there are important differences between this wakefulness in Christ and the ideology of the woke. The key difference among these is that the Christian is awake to the need for God; and we await the coming of Christ as the saviour and redeemer of all that we see around us that is broken by sin and captive to the fear of death. In humility, we confess there is no remedy apart from God in Christ, and that makes our being awake a very different state of consciousness than that of being “woke”.
Does this make the Christian then a passive person who is tolerant of injustice? Well, no. As Catholic Christians we are aware of the kingdom of God as being something that is both already here, yet not fully realized. The coming of Christ has happened, and through us he is at work in the world. Yet, we continue to labour in his service not knowing the day or the hour of his second coming when, indeed, all will be accomplished.
Our work is to be faithful, practice justice, live in truth (as uncomfortable as that truth might be), and to love others – that is, will good for others. To do that, we must abide in Christ, because apart from him the temptation is overwhelming to deal with the world in worldly terms – remember what Jesus says to Pilate about the nature of his kingdom: if my kingdom was of this world, my followers would be fighting to release me. The easy solution, but wrong one is to seek power over others, to use violence and the threat of violence, to bully and threaten persecution against others to compel them toward the solutions we imagine will give us paradise, will give us the kingdom of God here and now; but no paradise comes of using evil to fight evil. Evil just grows.
That’s a real test of faith: to believe that we can survive as the sheep of Christ’s flock surrounded by wolves. And if we are awake, we know this, we are very aware of just how threatened we are by what scripture describes as a ravening lion seeking to devour us. Shouldn’t we be at least a little more wolf-like? Well, no. The counter-intuitive thing to do is remain the good little lambs, the sheep who know their master and listen for his voice because in doing so, we will be saved. St. John Chrysostom, the great preacher, said: “If we are sheep, we overcome, if wolves, we are overcome.” And why overcome? Because in becoming wolves, in choosing the way of the world, “we lose the shepherd’s help.” (Hom. 33:1,2 PG 57, 389-390)
To the world that is foolishness. How can we succeed against people of violence? The corrupt who corrupt others? The world tells us this is a dog-eat-dog world, and the only solution to injustice is power, the only security is power. For heaven’s sake, you Christians, wake up and smell the rot of this world! Stop being a bunch of Pollyannas, stop being sheep.
Well, indeed, we shouldn’t be sheep in the sense of just doing what worldly authorities tell us to do without question, without discernment. But we are to be sheep as part of Christ’s flock.
Jesus tells us today that we probably cannot imagine how the world will be transformed, how justice will be fully realized, how love will triumph; just how the sheep will beat the wolves.
Like sinful humanity before the great flood, we will all be living our lives, doing those things to which we have become accustomed, and assuming this is just the way things are for good and sadly, for ill; then suddenly the cataclysm. Who in the time of Noah imagined the forty days of rain, the flood, the drowning of civilization? Not even Noah and his family really could grasp what was going to happen even as they built that big boat. Jesus says it will be like that. However, we do know one thing: whatever happens, it won’t be a flood. God promised that wouldn’t happen again.
I believe we may have at least one recent example of how it might look to us; many of us here witnessed a triumph over evil accomplished, for the most part, without violence, without the persecution of those who were overthrown. And it was experienced as being, in historical terms, rather sudden.
It was the collapse of the Soviet Empire in the late 1980s, a remarkable thing: there came a point in time when an oppressed, frightened and violated people simply stopped being afraid of the state police, were no longer intimidated by the guards on the walls, no longer deferred to the political leadership and the bureaucracy that ran everyone’s lives. And we ought to remember who and what was the centre of that revolt: Christian faith, and the Church, bloodied and beaten but unbowed.
Some who attend this parish lived under that regime, and they can tell you how the media in Russia and throughout Eastern Europe represented it as revolutionary, and “for the people” and morally superior to all others. So perfect, that to criticize it would lead to one’s being denounced, to being called a “fascist” and then risk, at the least social isolation, but also loss of work, imprisonment and exile.
We see a version of this today, where people are labelled as some kind of “-ist” or a “-phobe”, and so “cancelled” and banished to a virtual gulag that can nonetheless mean a real loss of work and social marginalization in a very real way.
I’ve mentioned this before, the thesis historian Michael Burleigh: the ideologies of our degenerate Western society are all at heart corrupted versions of Christianity, heresies that take some aspect of the gospel, some doctrine of the Church and distort it through insistence on making it relevant to the world and comprehensible by stripping it of mystery.
And so, there is justifiable horror at the evils done by human beings, but nonetheless among the secular-minded, the illogical belief that we human beings are ones we have been waiting for; we are our own saviours and redeemers; that among us are angels who will deliver perfect justice, peace and prosperity. When has that ever been true?
Our Lord counsels patience, and persistence in doing the good works he has commanded: spiritual and corporal works of mercy, the upholding of justice, the pursuit of truth, the offering of ourselves in and through the self-sacrificing love of Christ.
So, no napping! Indeed, in this dark season the temptation to sleep is strong, and as we move deeper into the night of our current times when so many evils are active both here and abroad, oh to close our eyes to them if only for a little while. But no, wake up! Look around you, see things as they truly are, but do not be afraid. Put on the armour of light, live honourably as in the day. Indeed, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and so be ready for his coming.