We succeed in our studies, in our work and in all our endeavours only by preserving momentum, a sense of purpose and confidence. The same applies to Christian life. The liturgical period of Advent is so refreshing precisely because it rekindles our spiritual momentum by reminding us that we are journeying toward a God who is not just waiting for us, will not just come at a date that no-one knows, but keeps arriving in us at every moment. Jesus’ last words in the New Testament are “Yes, I am coming soon” (Rev 22.20). They convey not only his intention to come at some point in history, but also and especially the urgency, the eagerness with which he wants to be part of our existence right now.
The Gospel of Mark warns us against a form of sleep that hampers this momentum, that prevents us from welcoming this ‘advent’, or ‘arrival’: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping” (Mk 13.36). Sleeping is necessary for us to function as human beings but drowsiness can be fatal if it occurs when we are driving, or while doing things that require our full attention, as for a surgeon during an operation. More benignly, if we doze off while watching a film we lose its plot.
We lose the plot of our existence because of the spiritual numbness caused by the acceleration of the rhythm of life, the unremitting stream of daily duties, the compulsive need to compensate for our exhaustion by abandoning ourselves to the unending variety of distractions technology puts at our fingertips. We can go for days, weeks, months without ever once looking up to see again the larger picture, to check we’re heading in the right direction, to recapture a sense of purpose that is the only steadfast source of energy and imagination in whatever we try to achieve.
Jesus’ invitation to be alert, therefore, means that we should become aware of these mechanisms not because they are particularly sinful in themselves, but because of their ability to monopolize our minds, neutralize our hearts, weaken our relationships, and prevent us from recognizing and welcoming the constant arrival of the Lord, his presence and action within us, and at our side.
This invitation, however, instead of generating momentum can often be the cause of anxiety, especially when we hear Jesus comparing our situation now to the relation between some servants and a master who has gone away for a while and will pounce suddenly and when we least expect it (Mk 13.34ff). Now, it would be wrong to understand this as meaning that Jesus is absent and that he relies on our anxiety and fear as motivations to perform our duties. God is never absent! Just as he is ascending into heaven Jesus promises: “I am with you until the end of the world” (Mt 28.20) and his name is Emmanuel, that is “God with us” (Mt 1.23). Here lies one of the main temptations of churches: to behave as if God were absent and that the continuation of Christianity depends on our institutions, on our rules and on our ability to enforce them. But here also lies one of the main temptations of spiritual life tout court: to think, as Isaiah says, that God “hides his face from us” and that we are “delivered up to our guilt” (Is 64.6), a guilt that makes us “wither like leaves” and “carries us away like wind” (Is 64.5). Guilt, anxiety, fear can never make us better Christians, can never sustain our spiritual life. They might prevent us from doing wrong sometimes but we soon realise that it is at the price of allowing hypocrisy and all forms of individual and institutional neuroses to fester under the surface.
A healthy spiritual life unmasks and deflates this anxiety and gently replaces it with mindfulness: “Would that we were mindful of you in our ways” (Is 64.4). With a God who is with us, who constantly anticipates us, on whose coming we depend “for our life, our movement and our being” (Acts 17.28), mindfulness means responsiveness. Our attention, our alertness, our watchfulness can perceive the infinitely delicate ways in which God keeps visiting us only if they respond to his initiative, only if they welcome his advent. In the end, the only effective antidote to anxiety and guilt is truly believing in God’s presence at our side and clinging to him (cf. Is 64.6). We have no power over the pathologies of our spiritual life other than exposing them to the love of the Father who patiently soothes and refashions our heart: “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands” (Is 64.7).