29 November 2009

Vigilance for Christ NOT vigilance against fear

1st Sunday of Advent: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

If you search on Youtube for vids using the terms “wake up prank” you will find some hilarious pranks pulled on poor, sleeping souls. Pranksters use air horns, spiders, plastic lizards, flour, mousetraps, and Halloween masks to scare the living daylights out of their family members and friends. Asleep and soundly dreaming away the night, the victims are secure in their beds. Vulnerable, innocent, easy prey. When the assault comes, their reactions—screams of terror, wild jumping about, colorful (*ahem*) language—all come together perfectly in a flashing instant of surprise, a completely unexpected jolt back to the reality of the waking world. . .and the terrible laughing of their loved ones. After this dose of terror, how do they ever get back to sleep, waiting, as they surely are, for the next bucket of water, or the next fake machine gun blast? Do they know it's coming? Do they wait to be surprised again?

Speaking to the disciples about his return at the end of this age, Jesus says, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy. . .and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times. . .” Like the victim of a Youtube wake-up prank, are we to live our lives in vigilant fear of being surprised by the trumpet blast, the roaring waves, the moon and stars shaken from the sky? After all, doesn't Jesus also tell the disciples that “people will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world”? Ours is a vigilance of hope not fear, of thankful anticipation not fret and worry about disaster and cosmic destruction. Yes, the Day is coming, but it is the Day our Lord fulfills His promise to us.

The world has been ending since it started. The Last Day of creation dawned with the First Day's sunrise. Can you count the number of world-ending scenarios you have lived through? For me: Soviet communism, DDT poisoning, acid rain, nuclear winter, HIV/AIDS, the new ice age, global suffocation from deforestation, flu pandemics, “dirty bomb terrorism,” worldwide economic collapse, and global warming—all secular apocalyptic scripts that narrate the reduction of our civilizations to utter ruin. Instinctively, it seems, we understand that as individuals and as a collective whole we will die. There will be an end. I will die. You will die. We might even die together. On a global scale, apocalyptic scenarios represent our individual anxieties about dying. Projected on the world-screen, these End of Days dramas are just one of the ways we humans play out our fear of dying. The trumpets of natural disaster, or nuclear annihilation, or environmental pollution blare from the four corners of the Earth, and we run around screaming, searching for some way—any way—to forestall our end. If the Church can be justly accused of using the bloody prophecies of Armageddon to frighten the vulnerable into submission to her power, then we can just as rightly accuse the secular powers of using scientific prophecy to scare us into a slavery to fear. Does it matter if the prophets of global destruction are dressed in vestments or lab coats? Whether they use cryptic scriptures or equally occult “science”? Neither of these schools of prophecy preach the hope that Christ came give to us. Neither encourages us to wait faithfully in the expectation of the day of promise. Neither points us to the need to live in love with thanksgiving.

Does this mean then that we can become complacent in our vigilance for the coming of the Lord? No, of course not. But if we are not to drown in worry and be surprised on the day of promise, we must understand that ours is a vigilance for the coming of Christ not a vigilance against our inevitable demise. As Christians, we have no fear of death. Death is dead. Yes, we will die. But we will not lie dead forever. Jesus is not warning the disciples against the coming end so much as he is telling them to live now as if he he had come again already. When secular apocalyptic scenarios splash across the media, we are told that there are solutions, outs, ways of avoiding the coming disasters. We are harangued and shamed into schemes to save the planet. Jesus says no such thing to the disciples. There are no solutions. He says simply, “I will return. And here is how you will know I am coming. . .” The advent of his coming is always upon us. He has come; his is coming; and he will come again. These are not reasons to fear an end, but reasons to hope for his inevitable rule.

Hope looks beyond anxiety, beyond disaster, beyond the always-already advent of an apocalypse. When we hope as we ought, we are not gambling against cosmic odds, but rather laying claim to the promise made by God to His prophet Jeremiah: “In those days, in that time, I will raise up for David a just shoot; he shall do what is right and just in the land.” That's not an angry threat but a divine guarantee.


  1. Fr. Powell - I hope you don't mind, but I've copied your homily at the Men of St. Joseph web site, here: http://menofstjoseph.blogspot.com. I needed a guest blogger. Thanks for all you do!

  2. Rob, no problem...just link me, if you would.

  3. Muriel Sowden3:00 AM

    Would you mind if I share this with my Bible Study Group? We are studying Revelation and one or two of the group are finding it difficult to look beyond the disasters and horrors of the apocalypse. This excellent piece will help them to do so, I am sure!

  4. Muriel, I should have said as well...please, any criticism (good, bad, ugly) share it with me. I can't get any better if I don't know where improvement is needed. You CAN'T hurt my feelings...I promise.

  5. Tom in NJ11:46 AM

    Your comments on "personal relationship with Jesus" a few months back were very valuable. Can you afford a hundred words on Darby, the Schofield reference bible, dispensational millenarianism and its attraction to fundamentalists?