On Sleeping Too Long
(Is.63:16-17; 64:1,3-8; 1Cor.1:3-9; Mk.13:33-37)
In the storybook world, a few characters are great sleepers. Rip van Winkle sleeps for twenty years, Sleeping Beauty sleeps for a hundred, and in one ancient myth, the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slumber for two centuries. [i]
But it’s not only storybook characters who forever sleep. The Jesuit spiritual writer Anthony de Mello says that most people are asleep, but just don’t know it. ‘They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they raise children in their sleep and they die in their sleep without ever waking up.’
Why does he say this? It’s because they are spiritually unaware. Most people have been conditioned to live mechanical and predictable lives, and never really come to understand the loveliness and beauty of human existence.
‘All mystics,’ de Mello says, ‘no matter what their theology, no matter what their religion, are unanimous in one thing: that all is well. Although everything is a mess, all is well. It’s a strange paradox,’ he says, ‘but tragically, most people never get to see that all is well because they are asleep.’ [ii]
‘They’re just not aware of what’s going on. They might as well be a block of wood, or a rock or a talking, walking machine … They are puppets, jerked around by all kinds of things. Press a button and you get a reaction. You can almost predict how a person is going to react,’ he says. [iii]
Today we begin a brand-new season of Advent, when we start preparing our hearts and minds to receive Jesus, who we know is on his way.
When is he coming? St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a Doctor of the Church, says that Jesus has three comings. The first two are visible, and the third is invisible. [iv]
His first coming is his birth in Bethlehem, which we celebrate at Christmas. That’s visible, of course, but Jesus did so much more than arrive as a baby. He also died for us on the Cross and he arose again to new life. So, at Christmas we also celebrate Jesus as the Son of God who showed how much he loves us and who shows us how to live.
Jesus’ second coming will also be visible. This will be at the end of our lives and at the end of all time. That’s when he will come in his glory and we’ll finally see him face-to-face (2Thess.1:6-7).
And in between these two times is Jesus’ third coming, which is happening right now. It’s invisible, and that’s why only some of us can see him. Everyone else is asleep.
Where might we see Jesus? In the Scriptures, in the Holy Eucharist, in the Church, in our neighbours and in the ordinary events of our daily lives.
Most people can’t see Jesus because they are spiritually unaware. They have eyes, but really can’t see. They have ears, but really can’t hear. They have yet to learn how to see beyond our material world.
Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who found an eagle’s egg. He put it in the nest of a barnyard hen. The eaglet hatched with the brood of chicks and he grew up with them.
All his life the eagle did what the chicks did, thinking he was a chicken. He scratched the earth for worms and insects. He clucked and cackled. He thrashed his wings and he flew a few feet into the air.
Years passed, and the eagle grew old. One day he saw a magnificent bird flying high in the cloudless sky. It glided majestically in the wind, barely using its strong golden wings.
The eagle looked up in awe. ‘Who’s that?’ he asked.
That’s the eagle, the king of the birds,’ said a hen. ‘He belongs to the sky. But we belong to the earth – we’re chickens.’
The eagle lived and died a chicken, for that’s what he thought he was. [v]
This season of Advent reminds us that too many people today are scratching around in their barnyards when they really should be rising above and flying high, like eagles.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us to watch for his return. He says it three times. ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come’.
‘Stay awake,’ he says, ‘for you don’t know when the master of the house is coming … if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep’.
Then he adds, ‘… what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’
In other words, don’t miss this opportunity: wake up your spiritual selves.
Open your eyes, open your ears and open your hearts, and start noticing the subtle signs of Jesus’ presence all around you.
Life has a remarkable depth and beauty that too many of us miss.
[ii] Anthony de Mello, Awareness – The Perils and Opportunities of Reality. Image, New York. 1992:5.
[iii] Op Cit. p.67-68.
[v] Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, Image, New York. 1984:96.