Our banner reads, “Advent is about vigilance.” But what does that truly mean? What does vigilance mean, and is the church asking us to be vigilant about a certain thing right now? First of all, I will explain the meaning of vigilance itself. Second, I will explain the specific meaning of “vigilance” regarding the season of Advent. Third I will inform you of some things that are going on in the church right now that demand our vigilance. So like St. Thomas Aquinas my master, I will proceed from the general to the specific.
First, what does vigilance mean? Our word “vigilance” comes from the original Latin vigilia, meaning “wakefulness” or “watchfulness.” If we see the word used in ancient Latin, it usually described a soldier standing at his post or a parent keeping watch over his or her child. When we hear this word, it should call to mind images of the lonely soldier standing at his post, a mother anxiously watching every breath of a sick child in a crib, or a lover standing on a pier waiting for her beloved to come back to her from across the sea. If you’ve ever seen the movie A Few Good Men, Galloway is a lawyer who is taking part in a very sensitive legal case involving the United States Marine Corps. At one point, Lt. Weinberg asks Galloway, “Why do you like the Marines so much.” She simply replies, “Because they stand on a wall and say ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you tonight. Not on my watch.” (I love that quote.) A very common quote that you will come across is that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
The question for us this Advent is whether we feel deeply enough about our faith to be vigilant about it. Is our faith so sacred to us that it makes us feel like a watchful soldier, a concerned parent or a waiting lover?
So from the most ancient of times, vigilia or vigilance is a sacred word. The idea of vigilance implies several things: 1) It implies that there is something priceless enough to keep watch over, 2) It implies that the one keeping watch over it must perform some constant duty to keep watch over that thing, 3) vigilance implies that there is an enemy that you have to be vigilant against.
What are we keeping watch over this Advent? What should we be vigilant about? First, let me point out a newsflash that is found in most of the prayers of Advent: not only has Jesus come as a baby once, he is also coming again as very much of an adult who will one day stand face to face with us with very definite expectations that we have kept our faith in him alive. Advent and Christmas are not just supposed to be about a cute baby in a manger, as inspiring and beautiful of an image as that is. We are supposed to be reminded that one day, like lightning flashing from one end of the sky to another, Jesus will come again on the clouds to judge the nations – and our hearts. So have we kept watch over our hearts like a soldier, or an anxious lover? Have we kept ourselves from being invaded by the enemy of sin? Have we gone to mass and confession consistently? Have we said to private prayer and the rosary, or tried to fast, sit in adoration or tried to offer up acts of love to our Savior? Have we read and prayed with the Bible? Have we aided our brothers and sisters in their sufferings? Have we stood up for our faith and witnessed that we were Christians in the midst of an atheistic, perverse generation, even if it meant that we would be ridiculed or persecuted? Think about it. Is our behavior truly different than the behavior of our neighbor who doesn’t really profess Christ as savior? Because if our behavior isn’t different, then we might be FAILING in this call to vigilance.
Think about John the Baptist. From his earliest days of infancy, his parents must have told him about his vocation to be the prophet of the Messiah. His entire life must have revolved around pondering Scripture and what this might mean for him. His was the voice that was to be the one crying out in the wilderness to make straight the way of the Lord. Imagine what your life might be like if you knew before you could even talk that your mission on earth is supposed to be to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah. Think about how awesome that must have been! Think about how great of a responsibility must have weighed on the shoulders of John the Baptist. But shouldn’t it be true that all of us should conduct our lives as if we were preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah with our prayer and our behavior? Shouldn’t that be our ideal? THAT is what it means to be watchful. THAT is what it means to be vigilant.
What if it were true that by our behavior we might save or lose another soul? What if it were true that our vigilance could mean eternal salvation for someone sitting next to us? Because our faith would have us believe that this is precisely true.
With this in mind, I want you to be aware of the major movements that are going on in the Catholic Church right now. If we are supposed to be vigilant, then it doesn’t seem fair that we just guess about what that means. Our Church is constantly trying to read the signs of the times and give us hints about how we should be directing our hearts.
If you were not aware, Pope Benedict declared a Year of Faith for the Catholic Church. This began on October 11 and it will conclude next year on November 24. Exactly why did our Pope think it was necessary to declare a year of faith? Let us allow him to tell us the answer in his own words. In the document that the Pope himself wrote that inuguarated this event, he wrote, “Whereas in the past it was possible to recognize a unitary cultural matrix, broadly accepted in its appeal to the content of the faith and the values inspired by it, today this no longer seems to be the case in large swathes of society, because of a profound crisis of faith that has affected many people.” The Pope has declared a year of faith because he realizes that we find ourselves in the middle of a culture that is losing its faith.
So what do we do?
The Pope writes, “We must rediscover a taste for feeding ourselves on the word of God, faithfully handed down by the Church, and on the bread of life, offered as sustenance for his disciples.” The Pope has called us again to try to live our creed. We have been called to ponder and pray with Scripture, the Documents of Vatican II, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. We are to remind ourselves that doing charitable acts of social justice is a good thing, but the real work of God is to believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father and to testify to him by our words and deeds. The image that the Holy Father gives for our age is a beautiful but radical one. He writes: “The Church as a whole and all her Pastors, like Christ, must set out to lead people out of the desert, towards the place of life, towards friendship with the Son of God, towards the One who gives us life, and life in abundance.” This is a fairly radical image. We are to view this life as pilgrimage through a desert, taking only what is needed, and holding fast to the traditions given to us by Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Exactly what the Pope forsees is a mystery. But the discerning Catholic needs to recognize that the Holy Father is calling us back to a radical state of vigilance concerning our faith. If we have sleepy or complacent souls, our church is begging us to wake up and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ.
Confession and Eucharist must become absolute priorities. Private prayer, fasting, and study must come very closely behind. And we should attempt to demonstrate with our behavior that a real change is happening in our hearts so that people will again see how powerful a true Christian witness can be.
Blessed Pope John Paul II once said, “The whole of our life must be an Advent—a vigilant waiting for the final coming of Christ. What we heard Jesus say last Sunday during the Gospel must always ring out in our minds and hearts. Jesus said, “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man (Lk 21:36).” A soldier keeps his weapons always ready. An expected lover never stops thinking about the beloved. A mother never takes her eyes off that sick child. Is that how we treat our faith? Because that is how Jesus asked us to treat our faith. So let us strive that it might be so.