But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36-44 [NRSV])
A couple of years ago, when our son was waiting to hear from college admission committees, he and I were in what might understatedly have been referred to as an attentive posture of being. We could have been more accurately described as about to explode from the volatile combination of apprehension and hopefulness. We were on constant red-alert for e-mail and snail mail, attentive to the slightest alteration in the letter carrier's schedule. And when the news finally arrived, most of it good, we had waited so long and so hard that it was actually something of a let-down.
You can't live in a state of such tense alertness for long, at least not at my age, without doing some serious damage to your heart. Of course, there are far worse situations: a hospital room where a child lies in critical condition, the front lines of a war, the smell of smoke and the crackle of flames in the middle of the night. At such times, our sensory perception goes into high gear and the little things that we would not otherwise notice become etched into our very long-term memory.
Fortunately, most of us are not required to live in such tension for long periods of time. In fact, most of the time, we are barely aware of our surroundings. How many times have you driven dozens of miles down the interstate without really knowing it? Could you tell me what you had for lunch yesterday? You know your paid your bills last month, but do you have any clear recollection of having done so? No, most of the time we are on automatic pilot, just doing what we need to do more or less when we need to do it.
It has been posited that it is precisely that automatic-pilot approach to life that will leave some of us in the breach. Today's Gospel passage has become the foundation for the Left Behind novels. In that series of a dozen or more bestsellers, the end of the world as we know it begins with the disappearance of the "saved," in the course of an ordinary day and right before the eyes of friends and family. The premise, also based on the Book of Revelation, is that those who have been "saved" in this life will, on the Day of Rapture, be called to God's side in the blink of an eye, while the rest of the sorry human population will be left to its dread fate in the ensuing conflict between the battling forces of the Christ and the the antiChrist.
They aren't pretty books. The explicitly depicted violence is revolting, but no more so than the articulated vision of a god of violence and judgement who is out to render the universe into two opposing camps. Is that really what God means to do? Does God want us to be attentive only to the consequences of our actions in the context of an ultimate judgment between good and evil? The parallel to the Biblical flood story might seem to indicate that such is the case. Certainly the fear of a final catastrophic judgment seems endemic to human nature, as evidenced by the flood stories told by virtually every ancient culture.
However, I don't think that today's passage is placed here at the beginning of Advent, completely out of context, to remind us of the potential for disaster, or even to be attentive to the possibility of an event of gargantuan proprotions, like a hurricane or tidal wave. I think it's here to remind us to be attentive to the possibility that a colossal shift in the cosmos might be hidden in the smallest and most ordinary of events: the birth of a child in a cave on the outskirts of a small town.
"Keep awake, Jesus says, years later, to his followers. "Keep awake, " we are reminded, a month before Christmas. Keep awake for what?
I will be the first to admit that I do not "keep awake" for the Gospel message, for the good news that the world, and the part each of us plays in it, has been transformed. Mostly, I do my regular stuff. I check my e-mail and I prepare my lessons. I wash the kitchen floor and clean out the litter box. I teach my classes and go to meetings, at the school where I teach and at the church where I worship. I nag my children about their responsibilties. I do the laundry and ignore the vacuuming. Occasionally I remember to give thanks, for a crisp and blue-skied morning, for a child who has navigated a rocky passage, for a student who makes a leap of achievement. Sometimes I remember to pray ahead of time; for instance, before I open my opinionated mouth. (Not usually.) But mostly I am not awake or aware to the power or even the love of Christ in my life.
Sometimes. The truth about my walking has far less to do with my middle-aged quest for fitness than with my need for such awareness, which I tend to experience, if at all, when I am moving on my feet through God's created world. I walk largely as an exercise in attentiveness. There have been many occasions when I have paused as I have circled the small lake to which I often walk, noting a migrating bird or a startling shimmer of light across water, and been aware that the passing cars are missing something important. One afternoon I crouched behind the full-grown reeds of late summer, observing three green heron siblings learning to fly. Baby down feathers still stuck out here and there from their increasingly adult plummage, and as they hopped awkwardly from branch to branch, I worried like a mother heron that they were all about to fall in. Cars sped behind me and bicylists zipped down the nearby path. I was the only human witness to that first flying lesson.
Even that level of attentiveness is hard to maintain. Most of the time, we fancy ourselves too busy for the daily mindfulness to which both Buddhism and Christrianity call us. John Kabat Zinn entitles one of his books Wherever You Go, There You Are -- a point worth noting. Most of us are usually too busy with where we think we are going to attend to where we actually are.
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says that "The role of religion is to bring us to an awareness of life. The role of religion is to transform the world, to come to see the world as God sees the world and to bring it as close to the vision of God as we possibly can. Why? Scripture is very clear. What God changes, God changes through us."
Part of the good news is that we are now reminded, as the earth swings on its annual orbit, to "Keep awake." We have another opportunity, every year in the longest and darkest days of winter, to wake up and pay attention.