We know what it is like to be drowsy especially if we are awake and still up beyond our usual time for bed. As we get older we are no longer as interested in staying up late or out all night as often as we used to because - drink aside - we know all too well the consequences of sleep deprivation, that we’ll be sorry in the morning’, that there will be drowsiness, and an inability to concentrate on our work. The price to be paid for lack of sleep is high when we experience the occasional night of interrupted sleep when called out to an emergency, or more commonly for parents with sick or restless children who cannot settle easily at night, when a day’s work lies ahead.
We know what it is like to keep vigil at the sickbed or the deathbed of a loved one. We want to be there for their passing. We might talk and pray, or say nothing, but we cope in different ways, but we are there keeping watch. We all likewise dread the coming of that phone call to inform us to come quickly as our loved one has not much time left in the world in a hospital or nursing home. This is one kind of keeping vigil.
Another kind of vigilance is that of being ready and at work or on guard. Security of mind comes from the fact that we may have security cameras, alarms, or guards on the watch for the quiet time of the night when burglars and thieves are at work. It is better to have vigilant safeguards in place rather than have to go through the awful feeling of violation at having been burgled at a time when we ask ourselves with regret with the ‘if onlys’ afterwards that we could have done more, that the burglary was preventable. These are safeguards, like life or health insurance.
There is another kind of ‘watch’: more akin to the Gospel today and that is the vigilance that is required of us to be attentive to one’s duty and one’s commission, and not slacking even when the employer/supervisor/inspector is not looking or not in sight.
And so the name ‘watch’ is given to a time of the night when we are to be on the alert for the coming of an anticipated event – in time of war there was the possibility of invasion or attack, the manned watchtowers around the country and around the island of Cobh built during the prospect of foreign invasion of Ireland by Spain or France to be the back-door to invasion of England.
But what does being awake and alert mean for us here and now?
Just as the last few Sundays of Ordinary time also reminded us of vigilance – that of the men with the talents of the bridesmaids with oil for their lamps, because the Master is coming at an hour we do not expect, our whole life – not just some part of it – is meant to be one of prayerful vigilance to keep the commandments, to ward off temptation to commit repeated sins when it strikes, to keep sin at bay, but also in a positive sense we should have vigilance to watch out for all the many occasions during our day when in thought, word or action we can be generous, patient and charitable and not to give into to gossip, pride and unfair judgments through anger and tiredness.
To be watchful therefore is to have a heightened sense that there are opportunities not to be missed where I can be an active Catholic Christian in my attentiveness to the performance of my religious duties but also to be ever active in my resolve to watch of other comings of the Lord in the guise of those in need as last week’s Gospel reminded us. To be hopeful, encouraging, and to be responsive and discerning to the demands of the Gospel, to the keeping of the commandments and to ward off impending evil by humble acknowledgment of our weakness and proneness to sin. Difficult, demanding tasks and even the routine of life and seeming repetitive boredom are challenges to be met head on, that we might not seek novelty and distraction in harmful gratifying compulsions and addictions at the expense of straying from the path God has marked out for us.
All this is what is meant this first Advent Sunday by the alert to watch in our lives and to stay awake as ‘we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ.’