I’m afraid that I have nearly reached the point of changing the radio station when I hear a Christmas Carol and cringing when I hear Christmas hymns while shopping at Home Depot. It seems that I have reached this point earlier than normal this year, but then the Christmas decorations have been in the stores for weeks already. In Greece some six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Aesop, famous for his fables, noted that “familiarity breeds contempt.” Even if I avoid reaching the point of contempt, I need to work against becoming numb to the message. We see this in many areas of our lives as we are constantly bombarded by so many messages. We are not affected by reports of violence in the news, because we hear such reports many times each day. Most of us go through the day to day events of our lives numb or immune to much of what goes on around us. Perhaps this is a somewhat understandable defense mechanism that allows us to continue amidst such violence and greed, suffering and misery. If we are not very careful this lack of paying attention can go deeper and dull our senses to those right around us, to our family and friends, and even blind our awareness of ourselves. For this problem the Church provides the medicine of Advent. Advent is a spiritual wake-up call, a call to pay attention.
St. Paul tells us that “it is high time for us to awake out of sleep.” We know that we should be preparing for the coming of Christ everyday, throughout the year. But if we are not very careful, the importance of this message becomes blurred, if not lost, amidst the daily hustle and bustle. We know that Christ will come again, but first — I have to make it past this deadline… first — I have to handle this situation… first — I have to deal with this difficult person… first — I have to… And before we know it, it is as if we have fallen asleep and are living in a dream world, a world that is not reality because we have excluded God and people or things that really matter, or pushed them aside while we try to take care of the business at hand. Living in this world of our own invention, we fail to see ourselves as we are; we fail to see others as they are; we fail to see God as He is. At this point we have fallen into sin because we have forgotten God; we have forgotten who we are as His children. The Church calls us to wake up, to return to reality. The Church calls us to frequent self-examination and confession, calling us to remember ourselves and remember God. But again, we often put off this work, thinking “I haven’t really done anything that bad…” So a few times a year, the Church calls us with a louder, more persistent call, a call to wake up, pay attention and prepare ourselves, to prepare ourselves to meet God. Advent and Lent are the clearest examples of this call, as we prepare for the great feasts of Christmas and Pascha.
Calling us to wake from sleep, St. Paul urges us on saying that the night is far spent, meaning that the darkness that was life before Christ is past, the day is at hand, meaning that the light of Christ is with us, illuminating all things, revealing all things, filling all things with meaning. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness: the life of rebellion, the self-centered life, the life of deceit and pain – and let us put on the armor of light. Let us put on the life of Christ like a garment of clothing, let us cloth ourselves with truth and mercy, understanding, forgiveness and love. This idea of “putting on Christ” is most clear for us in Holy Baptism, as the white robe worn by the new Christian symbolizes the work of putting on the new life, lived in right relationship with God.
But, of course, this is not a simple or instant thing. As we go forward in the Christian life, we need to continue to put on Christ daily. St. Anthony of Egypt warned us to expect temptations till our last breath, and thankfully God does not leave us defenseless, but rather gives us the armor and weapons needed for battle against our enemy, against the evil one and all temptation. We are to arm ourselves with honesty and right living. We are to arm ourselves with prayer and worship, frequent communication with God and communion with God, bringing our concerns and our struggles to God and listening to God, that He may give us guidance and understanding, nourishment and healing. And we are to arm ourselves with fasting, strengthening our spiritual lives by weakening our attachment to things physical, giving order to our physical existence based on our spiritual priorities. Then when we clean house spiritually, confessing our sins and putting aside harmful things, we need to quickly fill that space with good deeds and spiritual discipline, or we will find that our old habits and harmful passions will soon creep right back into place. We are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.
Toward the end of St. Matthew’s gospel, we encounter Jesus speaking about His second coming, His coming at the end of the age. There Jesus told a parable about ten young women who were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive for the wedding party. The five wise virgins were prepared with oil for their lamps when the bridegroom arrived & were welcomed into the feast; the five foolish virgins were unprepared, caught off guard and were not ready when the bridegroom appeared, so they could not enter. The Church is the Bride of Christ – He is the Bridegroom – a banquet is prepared for all who are ready. We are told, “watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of man is coming.”
We know neither the day nor the hour, we simply know that He will come again, as He promised. His first coming was such that His divinity was only seen by the eyes of faith. Now He comes to His faithful children to be with us, moment by moment, day by day, and again He is seen only through the eyes of faith. When He comes again, at the end of the age, there will be no mystery, no confusion, every eye shall see him. He has told us that He will come with power and great glory, with all the holy angels. He will sit on His throne of glory and divide the sheep from the goats, those who love Him from those who have rebelled — those who have served His children from those who have only served themselves. We do not know the day or the hour, only that He will come. We are to wake up, pay attention to God, to those around us and to rightly living our own lives. We are to watch and be prepared. We are to cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Despite the rampant commercialization we are to remember the true message of this holy season. Let us prepare our hearts and souls for the coming of our Redeemer.