Advent Week 1

First Sunday of Advent – 27 November 2022

‘Stay awake!’ is the cry that opens the season of Advent; the Gospel seeks to rouse us from the spiritual torpor to which we are prone. The difficulty of staying spiritually awake is real. In our Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to vigilance five times and leads them in the gathering darkness to Gethsemane and bids them keep watch with him while he prays. But three times he will return to find them sleeping.

Just as physical exhaustion can come over the body, so a spiritual sleep, accidie, or sloth, can overtake the soul, a sin we don’t always take seriously today. What is it, this sloth? It’s a form of apathy, a neglect of our own spiritual good because of the effort involved. Jesus gives us a picture of sloth in today’s Gospel. Noah labours to build an ark, a means of salvation, but the others are too caught up in their own pleasures to attend to the clouds overhead. They suspect nothing, and like it that way. Whatever their better judgement, they are simply swept along by the round of daily life until the waters of the Flood sweep them away.

We mustn’t confuse sloth with idleness. In fact, it’s often masked by busyness, obsession with the everyday instead of, like Noah, recognising the gathering storm. If we consider the things we know we should do, but never somehow manage to find time for, perhaps we catch a glimpse of sloth, as it shuffles out of sight behind one excuse or another. “I know I should, but it’s been a long day, and I’m tired, so let’s leave it.” Sloth says, “I really should pray, should go to confession, but it can surely wait.” For one who was once told by a teacher “the trouble with you, Denham, is that your motto is never put off to tomorrow what you can put off to the day after that!” I know the problem well.

Sloth also makes us depressed at the prospect of living out the moral imperatives of our Christian life. It sours our delight in what God is preparing for us and in what he is preparing us for. If we do not face it, it can turn ultimately to hatred of God’s goodness and make us reject the very thing we should most embrace. How do we escape it? St Thomas Aquinas wrote that ‘the more we think about spiritual goods, the more pleasing they become to us, and sloth dies away.’ So perhaps staying awake involves thinking about spiritual goods, of what is really good for the human spirit, what is good given the fully human life we are to enjoy in heaven.

The season of Advent, taken seriously, helps in that task. It reminds us of Christ’s second coming and urges us to fast (in a small way, this isn’t Lent) and pray in preparation. We are to keep vigil, like the shepherds who kept a night watch on the hills around Bethlehem and who were met by the host of angels proclaiming the good news of Christ’s birth. A little detachment from the busyness, the trivial, and a focus on what really matters is perhaps the heart of this Advent season. So that anticipation of the good of the Lord’s first coming may prepare us for the still greater good of the second.

Fr Chris Denham

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