The First Sunday of Advent [A]
Isaiah 2:1-5 + Romans 13:11-14 + Matthew 24:37-44
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“For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
“Mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap.”
There’s something extremely enjoyable about sleep. The older we get, the more we appreciate something as simple as a nap. If I were to paint a verbal picture for you of a Sunday afternoon in January, with snow falling outside and the fireplace roaring, with a feather pillow and one of Grandma’s quilts on the sofa, then if the idea of a long nap didn’t immediately appeal to you, you would have to be under the age of thirty.
Nonetheless, regardless of age, is there anyone who likes being woken from sleep? I doubt there are many parents who like the chore of trying to wake a child. Sleep is something we cling to. Even if we can only have one more minute of sleep, and press the snooze button one more time … We don’t want to leave our state of sleep.
Yet even as much as we prize our sleep, sleep is also used in our culture as a metaphor for very negative experiences. If we say that someone’s “asleep at the wheel”, we’re not complimenting the person. If an athlete is on the field or the court, and the coach yells at the athlete, “Wake up out there!”, you can assume that the coach is not happy with the athlete’s performance.
In those settings, “sleep” implies some sort of “disconnect”, while its opposite—wakefulness—implies being connected, being “plugged in”, being alert to and engaged in what’s going on around oneself. The person who is asleep is not aware of what’s going on around him. He cannot see the “big picture”.
Even more confusing is that these two opposite ways of using the metaphor of “sleep”—as something that is very enjoyable and comfortable, and also as something implying a disconnect in our lives—are not mutually exclusive. That is, we often enjoy being disconnected from the bigger picture. One of the reasons that we want to remain asleep is so that we won’t have to look at the big picture.
We hear about this double meaning of sleep within today’s Scriptures. Focus upon Jesus’ command in the Gospel Reading. What kind of sleep is Jesus talking about when he commands, “Therefore, stay awake!”? In order to reach an answer, reflect upon different degrees to which one can or cannot awaken oneself.
First, there is the sort of sleep that you can wake yourself from directly. For example, an athlete can monitor his stats, recognize when he’s sleeping out on the field or the court, and take concrete steps to wake himself from his slumber.
Second is the kind of sleep from which we can only wake ourselves indirectly. An example would be the sleep that we settle into each night when we put our head on our pillow. You can’t consciously rouse yourself from the middle of this sleep. But you can wake yourself indirectly by setting an alarm clock before falling asleep.
Then there is a third type of sleep, from which we cannot wake ourselves at all. The most obvious example of this is death: human death.
In our moral and spiritual life, we have to face all three types of sleep.
First is the sleep of vice. A vice is a bad moral habit that we choose to cultivate, but which we can also uproot if we so choose. Moral effort by itself can alleviate vices, although God’s grace makes the process much easier.
Second is the sleep caused by sin. Sin destroys grace within us, leading to a sort of spiritual sleep. We can only uproot sin—both mortal and venial—indirectly, by turning to God to wake us up. We can make restitution for our sins, but not atonement.
Third is the sleep of death. Human death, unlike vices and sins, is irreversible (outside of a miracle). Ordinarily, no human person can raise herself or himself from death. Only Jesus, who declared, “I am the Resurrection and the Life”, can wake one from death.
To stay awake, then, is to wait for the coming of Christ with hope and assurance. We trust that His advent will bring freedom from vice, atonement for sin, and a door leading through human death into a life greater than we can imagine here below.