We Await the Day of Salvation
I was studying theology in Columbus OH some twenty years ago, and on my first night in that new setting, I awoke to a blinding light coming through my fifth floor bedroom window and the deafening noise of a helicopter landing on the roof of the hospital across the street. At first, I did not know what it was. I jumped out of bed, my heart pounding, my head spinning, and way more adrenaline than usual in my bloodstream at 3AM. Even after I figured out what was happening, I don’t think I ever got used to being woken up that way again. It wouldn’t help to complain, so I learned to sleep with the radio on and the blinds down. I would be ready for it the next time.
A friend from seminary once told me of being woken up rudely in the morning at his parents’ house. They had turned his bedroom into a sewing room after he left for college. So he had to sleep on the couch in the living room, which wasn’t a problem, until he woke up with the cat sitting on his face. I was even more surprised that it had to happen more than once before he decided to do something about it.
I choose to wake up to an alarm clock or radio because it forces me out of bed without giving me a chance to think about it. If I did think about it, I would most likely end up pressing the snooze button or turning it off altogether. So I put an alarm clock across the room and I have to get up to turn it off. It works most of the time. Some people can rely on mom or dad to turn on the light, pull off the covers, and threaten them with a lifetime of misery. Yet despite the variety of tools we employ and the people we enlist to help get the job done, waking up is still and will always be something we have to do for ourselves.
As we begin today the holy season of Advent, the scriptures invite us to wake up anew to the reality of salvation. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul writes that “our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” It is a reminder that we are on a journey toward salvation, or better still, that salvation is swiftly gaining on us, that we should continue making actual progress in our spiritual growth through the years, so that we are better prepared to embrace salvation when it comes upon us. Now some of us may realize we are now still where we were at the beginning of Advent last year, and perhaps the year before. Why are we not better prepared? Why do we not feel the urgency? Are we still asleep, oblivious to what God is trying to accomplish in our lives? Or do we choose to not bother at all with getting ready? When it happens, it happens.
Perhaps we choose to put off preparing for the Lord’s return till such time as we are in physical decline, thinking we will then have all the time we need. The people in Noah’s time didn’t see the rising water either, but not because they didn’t care. Rather, they were so immersed in their legitimate daily concerns, they could have just missed the signs. Now I’m sure even at a time when cable news or the internet didn’t exist, they would have all heard about that huge boat Noah was building in his backyard. Yet even if they did know, would it have mattered any?
You have by now heard of Fr. Bill O’Brien’s death earlier this week. I spoke with his sister Pat who had been keeping vigil with him in his final days. She said that in one of their last conversations, Fr. Bill told her he was ready. Now I have known others say the same at some point in their final illness, and declare to family and friends they are ready. It is certainly a great comfort to those who hear it, knowing their loved one is not being dragged out of this world against their will. And knowing this is the one singular moment we prepare for all our lives, it makes sense we get to it at peace in mind and heart, not fearful, not apprehensive, eager for what comes next, eager for eternal life.
So how do we best prepare? St. Paul continues, “throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day; … put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh.” In a word, be prepared any time. There won’t be time to change into your nice outfit, no time to grab your keys, your cash, or your cell phone. There will be no excuses, no deferrals, no postponements. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn. You might not even get to say goodbye to those you love, or clear the history cache on your web browser. So live each moment prepared for the inevitable summons to a much better life beyond this life.
I did not intend all this talk of the hereafter to sound dismissive of our legitimate concerns surrounding death, especially since the Christmas shopping season has began, and the hereafter is the farthest thing from our minds. But I came upon an insight that makes a lot of sense in this Advent season. Advent is not properly any longer a time to prepare for the birth of Christ in a stable at Bethlehem. That event took place once in human history, never to happen again. Instead, Advent is a time to prepare for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, that same salvation St. Paul writes about in the second reading, that salvation which “is nearer now than when we first believed.” And when we live our lives eager for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, actively working to make that promise a reality here and now, whose fulfillment is exactly the vision of the Lord’s mountain in the prophet Isaiah, “the mountain … which shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills, … to which all nations shall come, that [the God of Jacob] may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths,” … where the Lord will be the just judge, and we will turn the weapons of war and violence into tools for peace; if we live our lives eager for the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, that day will not catch us off guard. We will truly be ready for that hour the Son of Man will come.
As a nation, none can rival our generosity of spirit, our eagerness to share our blessings with others, or our willingness to see the establishment of peace in our time. But we also know that hardness of heart, that selfishness and arrogance that is contrary to the image of God’s kingdom of justice, love and peace. Amidst those who are most alert and awake to God’s promise of salvation are some who yet sleep and are unaware. They are people we live with, people we work with, people who sit beside us in church. They are us. We can only wake up for ourselves. And if we are awake, we cannot let down our guard. We cannot return to being asleep and unaware. Advent should not primarily be a season of the church year. It should be a way of life for us. So while we work to establish God’s kingdom in our time, we keep ourselves ready for the day God fulfills his promise of salvation. And that can be just about any time.
Rolo B Castillo © 2013