We have all had the experience, of someone telling us they will be coming to pick us up for an appointment or event; or of preparing for a vacation or a journey, and being told to gather what we need and to ‘be ready’ for when our transportation arrives. Sometimes we wait longer than expected; at other times, our ‘ride’ arrives before we are ready.
In the mid-1990’s I had the opportunity to serve in a United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Among the challenges of working in that war-torn region at the time, was the ever-present possibility that tensions could escalate quickly and fighting could erupt, beyond our ability to contain it or to defend ourselves; And so there was always the chance that we would have to evacuate our area of operations. If that happened, we were to get out any way we could, and regroup in a secure location, taking as many people to safety with us as we could.
Part of our daily routine was to be ready for this possibility, and to that end, we were instructed to prepare and carry what came to be known as ‘the bug out bag’ in case we had to ‘bug out’ or leave without a moment’s notice. The bag was to contain basic survival items -water, food, first aid supplies – we would need for three to five days; and the bag was to be kept readily at hand. The bag remained beside us when we were working, eating, sleeping, – it was a constant reminder of how unstable and fragile our position really was; and how without warning or advance notice, our entire lives could change dramatically. But still we had to ‘be ready’.
While not perfect, these examples can perhaps give us a little insight into today’s Gospel. Jesus, speaking to His disciples – and us, describes how sudden and immediate His return in judgment will be at the end of time. He tells each one of us to ‘keep awake’, to ‘be ready’, for we do not know’ on what day the Lord is coming’; and He compares His return with the stealth and sudden-ness of a thief in the night.
Now unlike the home owner fearing a thief, we look forward to and await the return of Christ – we not only believe He will return, as we say each time we recite the words of the Creed – but we hope for and desire His return – we look to that great day in joyful anticipation, when we will be reunited with God in His Heavenly Kingdom, with all of our loved ones, the angels, and the saints who have gone before us.
But our preparing for Jesus is not only for His return in glory; it is not enough for us to think we have everything ready, and then sit back and wait. We are invited and instructed by Christ Himself to be ready to encounter Him not only at the end of time, or when our own individual lives end and we take that step from this world into eternity – we are invited by Jesus to be ready to meet Him daily, in the many ways he enters into our reality.
We encounter Christ daily in the poor and the suffering; we serve Him in those who are troubled and grieving; we meet Him in those who are neglected or abandoned. We can also encounter him in the joyful – in those who celebrate their love for God and others in their acts of self-giving and generosity of spirit.
But as with His Second Coming – we don’t get to decide the time or the place where we meet Him in those around us – these situations come upon us at a time that is not of our choosing; yet it is in just these situations that it becomes our individual decision whether this is to be a chance for us to meet and serve our Lord, or whether it is an opportunity missed….
‘The coming of the Son of Man’ …these are the words Jesus uses in St. Matthew’s Gospel, describing an event of tremendous and cosmic importance – this phrase in Latin is ‘adventus Filii hominis’ , and it is where we get the name of this season which we are just beginning, Advent.
Traditionally the season of Advent is that time that we prepare our hearts and our homes for the coming of Jesus, culminating with the wonderful celebration commemorating His birth at Christmas. But it is a season that we can and should set aside time to ‘wake from our sleep’ as St. Paul tells us in our Second Reading from the letter to the Romans, and to ‘put on the armour of light’ – in other words to prepare our own ‘bug out bag’ to be ready to meet Jesus, and to bring others to meet Him as well.
How should we prepare then? What do we need to carry in our own kit?
Well Christ gives us three main tools we can include:
First, before all else, we should pray, remembering that everything is a gift from God – even the desire to pray and to communicate with God is a gift. Whether we use Scripture, pray the familiar prayers, or whether we formulate our own words, we need to take time and pray from the heart – St. Teresa of Avila once wrote that prayer is simply lifting our hearts and minds to God. It’s important to remember though, that prayer is a conversation – and just as with any conversation, it is not what we say that is most important, but how we listen and what we hear. We can’t communicate with someone or have a relationship if our conversations consist of us talking and talking and not giving the other the chance to speak in return. We need to allow quiet time to reflect and hear what God is saying to us.
Secondly, we need to re-orient our selves towards God; this is what conversion is all about – as St. Augustine, another doctor of the church stated, conversion is the opposite of sin – conversion is the ongoing, intentional, deliberate, turning or orienting of our selves towards God – whereas sin is the deliberate intentional continuous turning away from God and inward on our selves. The soul that continues on this path ends up in a spiral and becomes so turned inward that they cannot see or find their own way out to anyone else and they eventually give in to bitterness, anger and despair. Those who turn to God though, experience healing, love and peace; and it is a continuous process – not a just a single moment in time.
The sacrament of reconciliation is an excellent means of beginning and continuing on this path of conversion – and if I might share something that may take some of the ‘fear’ or ‘hesitance’ out of coming to this wonderful healing sacrament; after examining our conscience, and once inside the confessional -before we discuss our sins with the priest – first say out loud at least one way in which God has blessed you – more if you like- but raise your blessings first ; whether they be family, a spouse, parents, children, friends, employment – whatever it may be – give thanks to God first – You’ll be amazed at how it changes your perspective on confession – instead of asking for forgiveness of God out of fear of punishment for your sins, you’ll find that you ask for forgiveness of a loving God who has already done so much for you and wants to do so much more for you.
The third supply we can include is frequent reception of Holy Communion at Mass, especially during this time of Advent; in fact, it is the one time that we know we are encountering Jesus in a very real way. During Holy Mass, when we approach the altar, we hold out our hands or open our mouths, and open our hearts to receive Jesus’ Sacred Body and Precious Blood.. Jesus comes to us in His very Real Presence in this incredible gift — we become living vessels of Jesus Himself – just like the tabernacle that holds the Body of Christ – just like the Blessed Virgin Mary who carried Jesus in her own womb – we receive and take into ourselves Christ our Lord. Christ’s coming to each one of us doesn’t get any more intimate than that – and while it is a blessing we should all be thankful for, it is a blessing we should pray that all people may come to experience.
Blessed Guerric of Igny, a spiritual writer of the 12th century put it all beautifully ; “ We are awaiting the birthday of Christ and, according to the Lord’s promise, soon we shall see it…but even before His coming (to all people), may the Lord come to you! Before he appears to the whole world, may He come to visit you intimately, He who said: ‘I will not leave you orphans’…the first coming was humble and hidden; the final one will be startling and magnificent. The coming we speak of -within us- is hidden also, but it is no less magnificent…He arrives without being seen, and he leaves without being noticed…His presence alone is light for the soul and the mind…inspires within the soul who contemplates Him a gentle and happy admiration, so that deep within that person, a cry wells up ‘Lord, who is there like you?’ Those who have experienced it already know the answer, and – please God – may those who have not experienced it desire to!”
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!