With this terse command, the Gospel of Matthew begins our season of Advent on Sunday, Dec. 1. How rich and rewarding will be the 24 days of this season if we keep those words in our heart each day.
Stay awake, “for you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
December is a busy, hyperactive month, and maybe we’d rather hear Jesus say, “Take a snooze.” Of course, the Lord is not urging us to forgo healthy sleep or to live out the busy month of December in a caffeine-induced stupor, something we’re prone to do during the holidays anyway.
On the contrary, the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent is an invitation to slow down and be present to what’s important. To do this in the midst of the holiday frenzy, we need a game plan for Advent.
Perhaps those two simple words, “stay awake,” can serve as a prayer commitment each morning. It’s an invitation to be present to the Lord and to the poor among us, a simple prayer that will lead us to an awareness of the God who waits to encounter us each day.
That little mantra could follow us through the day, in the midst of rush hour traffic, squabbling children, holiday preparations, too many to-dos. Simply return to that prayer. “Help me stay awake to your presence, Lord.”
Since Jesus is truly present to us in the Eucharist, perhaps we could make a commitment to daily Mass, or an extra Mass each week. Give up a lunch hour or rise early for Mass on the way to work or school.
Jesus is present to us in Scripture. Reading the daily Scripture readings is a beautiful Advent commitment. Rather than a cursory reading, be open to which text most touches you and spend time there. Read and reread it, slowly and prayerfully. Where is God being revealed to you there?
The rich readings of Advent — the beauty of Isaiah, the lyricism of Luke — can be savored with early morning candlelight and hot coffee. This will help you carry Jesus’ presence through the day.
Always remember that Jesus is present to us in the poor. As Pope Francis tells us, “The poor save us because they enable us to encounter the face of Jesus Christ.”
No one is more helpless than a baby, one born to the underclass, to people unimportant in the eyes of the world. Jesus was such a child, called to be a refugee, seeking asylum in a journey into Egypt. His whole life revealed a compassion for and communion with the poor. He calls us to be awake to the poor.
During Advent, reread The Last Judgment scene in Matthew’s Chapter 25. Ask yourself, when have I seen Jesus hungry or thirsty and given him food or drink? When did I visit the prisoner or the sick, clothe the naked? In a world where millions upon millions are fleeing war, poverty and terror, when did I attempt to welcome the stranger?
Matthew’s Gospel states that our lives will be judged based on how we answer these questions.
During Advent, consider how you encounter and perceive the poor. Writing a check is great — Catholic Relief Services, Jesuit Refugee Service, your local Catholic Charities — these and many more need your help. But try to find a way to actually be present to the poor.
Sometimes shelters and food kitchens are overwhelmed by helpers during Advent. But call them during December and ask when they might most need help in the coming year.
But remember poverty comes in many forms. Each day, we encounter the poor among us, and in times of sadness or illness or even economic distress, we are the poor. We should always remember our unity with the poor, our need to see Jesus in ourselves and in those who struggle around us daily.
Bring a smile and a kind word to the overworked store clerk, say a prayer for those you encounter who are rude. Remind yourself — stay awake — that you don’t know how people are struggling. Tip generously, smile often, hold the door for someone.
Stay awake to little opportunities. Think of someone who may receive no Christmas cards and send one. Visit a lonely neighbor or relative. Stay awake to need, and be grateful for those who are present to your needs.
The 24 days of Advent are busy. But it would be tragic to let consumerism and consumption overtake our encounter with Jesus.
Mass, Scripture, an encounter with the poor — these bring us to God’s presence.
Review each day and make note of where you encountered Jesus. Begin each day with the voice of Jesus asking you to stay awake and prepare a way for the Lord.
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(Caldarola is a freelance writer and a columnist for Catholic News Service.)