Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17, 64:1, 3-8; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37
If you’ve ever received a speeding fine, you will know that the reason you were caught was because the State Trooper had cleverly hidden his vehicle so that by the time you saw it, it was too late. This same sense of entrapping us in a state of spiritual carelessness seems to permeate this morning’s Gospel with its call to be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come!
Indeed, some images of God would have God almost delighting in catching us red-handed in the act of sinning grievously so as to be able to punish us in the eternal fires of hell. Such an image is clearly at variance with the true face of God as revealed by Jesus Christ–that Good Shepherd who lovingly comes in search of the lost and desires only their salvation.
However, although that is undeniably true, it’s worth noting that, as Saint Augustine sadly explained, some lost sheep do not wish to be found and inexplicably resist the approaches of the Good Shepherd. And so perhaps it is this latter condition of not wishing to be found and rejecting the Good Shepherd, that Jesus is warning us against by his call to watchfulness so that, in his words, he may not come suddenly and find [us] sleeping. This is to suggest that this watchfulness involves not so much the return of Christ (either at our death or at his second coming) but rather watchfulness over the nature and quality of our relationship with him.
You see, it’s important to note that the choice we’re faced with is not like that involving the speeding fine–being caught or not being caught. Which is to say that it’s not simply a choice between the fires of hell or the delights of heaven–who would ever choose the former? Heaven, as Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity (amongst others) explains is God and perfect union with him. The fires of hell are, in turn, the absence of God–or at least the absence of our capacity to be open to him and to receive even a single ray of his love. And so the watchfulness that Christ is advocating is over the development or weakening of our relationship and union with God. If heaven is not a place filled with manifold delights but rather that state of perfect union with our loving God, then a life freely lived without serious reference to God and with no love or longing for him, is a poor preparation for heaven, and may even serve to exclude us.
Monastic life would seem to free us from this latter concern but this is not necessarily the case. As Saint Bernard warned, not to move forward in our relationship with Christ is inevitably to move backwards. Spiritual stagnation is always a possibility in monastic life and a lack of watchfulness over our spiritual lives can gradually erode a personal relationship with the God we vowed our lives to. And so God gradually becomes a stranger who at our knocking, will say (as he did to the unwise virgins), I do not know you. This exclusion need thus not necessarily involve serious sin or vice, but merely that dangerous indifference to God and his loving call to fellowship and union. And it is against this insidious descent into indifference that Christ is perhaps exhorting us to be watchful against.
Our understanding of eternity is limited but it does seem that death involves a transition from a world of time into a state of eternity in which there is no longer past or future. Accordingly, it is likely that a pervasive attitude of indifference or animosity towards God at the moment of death becomes one’s fixed and eternal state separating one from God and excluding one from heaven–that state of blissful union with God.
In our efforts to remain watchful, a reliable means of gauging our love and longing for God (or uncovering casual indifference) is examining our attitude towards death and dying. For as Thomas Merton warns, if death comes to us as an unwelcome stranger, it will be because Jesus also has always been an unwelcome stranger. And if Jesus is heaven, heaven too cannot be welcomed. For in this absence of longing for Christ and beholding his face, any expectation of heaven is, according to Saint Cyprian, ludicrous for we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will!
Through this Eucharist may we be spared this fate and instead be granted watchful hearts ever longing for the return of our loving Savior who comes to take us into his eternal embrace and into the heart of the Trinity.