When I go to confession, I never say “I was impatient with a parishioner.” I add “but I was in a rush.” I don’t say “I ate too much,” without adding “but that parishioner really can cook!”
So let’s hope God listens.
However, this Sunday’s Gospel clearly tells us there’s one excuse God will not buy on the day of judgement: “I didn’t know.” We Christians will not be able to face him and say, “but you never told me!”
St. Paul calls us to turn away from sin and turn to Christ. Most of us are unlikely to be surprised by his message. We already knew that being debauched and licentious was not a good preparation for Christmas! I’m not making light of the apostle’s catalogue of sins, which include things that aren’t exactly uncommon like quarreling, jealousy, and drinking too much. But it’s no revelation that these are a serious problem on our spiritual journey.
The warning Jesus gives us is more subtle. It probably targets more of us than St. Paul’s. Still, both the Gospel and second reading share a central message. In keeping with my recent resolution to sum up my homilies in a few words, that message is: wake up!
The contrast between the second reading and the Gospel is fascinating. St. Paul warns us that serious sin can put us to sleep—it can anesthetize our consciences. We become people of the flesh and not of the Spirit. Jesus warns us about another risk, which may be a greater problem because it’s so much harder for us to recognize.
That risk is allowing routine activities to distract us from the deepest realities of life. We’re not turning away from God by deliberate sin but losing sight of God because we are so busy, even with good things such as work and family life.
Johann Sebastian Bach even set that message to music in the beautiful cantata Wachet auf. It begins “Awake! the voice calls to us…” The powerful text was written by Philipp Nicolai, who was so good at writing hymns that the Lutheran Church venerates him as a saint.
Wachet auf is not based on St. Paul’s exhortations to wake from sleep; nor is it based on today’s Gospel. The hymn refers to the parable of the wise and foolish virgins which is another of the many passages in the New Testament that warn us to be prepared and ready for the coming of the Lord.
In the text, it’s the voice of watchmen calling the virgins to wake up, pick up their lamps, and welcome the bridegroom. On this First Sunday of Advent, it’s the voice of Jesus himself.
In last week’s homily I shared a vision for our parish—that Christ the Redeemer becomes ‘irresistible’ to parishioner and non-parishioner alike.
That’s a vision specific to our times. No one needed an irresistible parish in 1950—there was so much less competition for our minds and hearts. Today, we need to work twice as hard to awaken people to the vision of our first reading and psalm: becoming a joyful people journeying together to the house of the Lord.
Today’s psalm was sung by pilgrims arriving at the gates of Jerusalem. In the holy city they hear God’s word and praise him in response. And in the final verse, they pray for their family and friends.
What stops the average person in our parish from sharing all the joy and enthusiasm of those Jewish pilgrims? I can put it in one word, busy-ness.
Anyone want to guess what makes prayer difficult for me? When I was in the seminary, I would have said distraction, the universal problem when praying. Today the answer is my iPhone. Heaven forbid I would go into the church without it! I might miss a call.
You all know what keeps you from praying at home or from coming to Water in the Desert, for instance. Driving kids to soccer practice. Early morning and late-night trips to the gym. Binge watching.
These aren’t things we can entirely avoid. But as Advent begins, we can take stock and wake up to unbalanced priorities. We can stay awake, alert to the ways our busy lives may be making us spiritually drowsy. To use a very tired phrase, Advent is a wake-up call.
Effective changes in lifestyle and priorities are almost never radical. We need simple, realistic goals aimed at making some progress in our relationship with Jesus Christ.
Choosing one simple thing can help overcome our spiritual drowsiness during this sacred season and prepare us for a more meaningful celebration of Christmas.
And there’s no shortage of ideas. You’ll find a whole page devoted to Advent on the parish website with wonderful suggestions.
One of the easiest but most powerful things we can do is attending Water in the Desert on Saturday December 17. As it happens, our Advent webpage has a quote from Pope emeritus Benedict where he says that the Church, like Christ, must “lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” That’s certainly what our evening adoration, music, and testimony can do for people wearied by the pre-Christmas rush.
Every Tuesday in Advent, there’s a wonderful opportunity to awaken our souls. We will have Mass at 7:00 pm followed by adoration and confession at 7:30.
Speaking of confession, it’s the ideal way we can, “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh,” to use St. Paul’s words. There’s no better way to be ready for the unexpected coming of the Son of Man about which Jesus warns us. We will have many priests celebrating the sacrament at our penitential service on Wednesday December 21. There’s even an online guide on the Advent website to help you prepare if it’s been a while.
Needless to say, we need to be alert not only to our own spiritual needs but to the needs, spiritual and material, of our brothers and sisters. That’s why the website lists no fewer than five opportunities for service and charity in Advent.
I’ll end with my two-word summary of God’s words to us as Advent begins: wake up! Shake off the fog of our overly busy lives for the next four weeks. Be ready for the coming of the Lord, awake and alert as Jesus has commanded, whether that be his final coming or the arrival of the Christ child on December 25.
However important our daily routine, it cannot be allowed to keep us from what matters most. No excuses!