Stand ready, stay awake
Today as we celebrate the first Sunday of Advent, which is also the first Sunday of the new liturgical year, the gospel according to Matthew, Lectionary Cycle A will be the primary gospel proclaimed.
To refresh the memory, it is important to note that the Advent season includes the four Sundays that precede Christmas and basically it is a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord. As part of this preparation, Jesus in Matthew 24:42 encourages us to stay awake.
To properly comprehend the true significance of staying awake it is important to understand the purpose of sleep. It forms an integral part of the human experience, and the Bible often makes mention of it and employs figurative language to stress certain truths about God.
For example, in Psalm 121: 3–4 it underscores the fact that God is always mindful of our needs: “May he save your foot from stumbling; may he, your guardian, not fall asleep! You see—he neither sleeps nor slumbers, the guardian of Israel.” Because of the providential care and guidance of the Almighty many faithful take consolation and refuge in Him, Psalm 4:8: “In peace I lie down and at once I fall asleep, for it is you and none other, God, who make me rest secure.”
On the other hand, when the Hebrew people fell into sin, and the Lord allowed them to suffer the consequences of their rebellion, it was as if He were asleep. In other words, He did not intervene to deliver them from their calamities. Thus, they exclaimed Psalm 44; 23: “Wake, Lord! Why are you asleep? Awake! Do not abandon us for good.”
Sleep is used to convey laziness, Proverbs 6: 4–11: “Give your eyes no sleep, your eyelids no rest break free like a gazelle from the trap, like a bird from the fowler’s clutches. Idler, go to the ant; ponder her ways and grow wise no one gives her orders, no overseer, no master, yet all through the summer she gets her food ready, and gathers her supplies at harvest time. How long do you intend to lie there, idler? When are you going to rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little drowsiness, a little folding of the arms to lie back, and poverty comes like a vagrant and, like a beggar, dearth.”
Sleep can also portray the utter and final punishment of a wicked power that has stood in opposition to God. The prophet Jeremiah 51: 37–39 foretells the complete destruction of the evil Babylonian regime: “Babylon will become a heap of stones, the lair of jackals, a thing of horror and of scorn, with no one living in it. Like lions they roar together, they growl like lions’ whelps. Are they feverish? I will prepare them a drink and make them drink until they are tipsy and fall into an everlasting sleep, never to wake again, God declares.”
Sometimes spiritual lethargy is represented as a sleep. Hence, Paul in his letter to the Romans 13:11 explains: “Besides, you know the time has come; the moment is here for you to stop sleeping and wake up, because by now our salvation is nearer than when we first began to believe.”
Again, a similar sentiment is expressed in his letter to the Ephesians 5:14: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
Sleep often suggests the notion of being unprepared to meet the Lord; that is why in today’s gospel Jesus sternly warns us to stay awake.
In a similar manner Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5: 3–6: “It is when people are saying, ‘How quiet and peaceful it is’ that sudden destruction falls on them, as suddenly as labour pains come on a pregnant woman; and there is no escape. But you, brothers, do not live in the dark, that the Day should take you unawares like a thief. No, you are all children of light and children of the day: we do not belong to the night or to darkness, so we should not go on sleeping, as everyone else does, but stay wide awake and sober.”
It is against this background that Jesus in Matthew 24: 42 encourages us to stay awake and be alert.
The gospel meditations for December are by Fr Gabriel Julien, a diocesan priest.