The First Sunday of Advent

It’s true that as you get older you can’t remember much about what happened last week, but you can remember incidents from the distant past.  Those of us with a few grey hairs on our heads may remember waking up one morning around 50 years ago to find that overnight a layer of fine dust had fallen from the skies.  It was certainly very noticeable where I lived in the North and this dust covered parked cars, windows, trees, in fact everything that didn’t move.  Naturally it caused quite a sensation and people reacted immediately: they wanted to know what was it and where did it come from?  Many were worried, fearing that it was caused by a fall-out of dangerous chemicals or even radioactive material.  There was a deluge of phone calls to weather centres and local councils.  Finally the explanation came: it was sand blown up from the Sahara Desert.  You can imagine people’s relief.  The dust was certainly a nuisance but it was readily accepted because the strong southerly winds that had brought it to England all the way from Africa also brought the warmest November in living memory.

Now suppose that same coating of dust had fallen, not in a single night, but say over a period of months – what would have happened?  Well, probably nothing.  Nobody would have noticed it, much less feared it.  Yet things can accumulate gradually, and for that reason they can be all the more dangerous simply because we fail to notice them.  C.S. Lewis wrote that “The surest road to Hell is the gradual one”.

In the gospel today we hear a short parable.  It’s about a householder who had a number of servants.  He had to go abroad, which meant he would be away for a long time, so the servants would have the place all to themselves.  Before leaving he called them together and gave each of them a job to do.   He urged them to be responsible: to do their various jobs well and not to fall asleep.  And he singled out the doorkeeper for a special warning: “When I return I want to find you awake”.  This wasn’t surprising since the doorkeeper would have control over all those entering and leaving the house.

Our Lord suddenly ends the story there with that warning literally ringing in our ears.  So let’s take this parable a little further, concentrating only on the doorkeeper.  Now, perhaps the greatest danger facing him is not so much that he may fall asleep on the job as that he may grow so accustomed to it that it becomes just a job and nothing more.  Let’s see.

In the beginning he is all excited about the job.  He feels honoured that the Boss has placed so much trust in him.  He loves the uniform and as soon as he puts it on he feels important.  Overnight he is somebody.  He is conscientious to the point of being scrupulous.  This is not so much a job for him as a labour of love, which he does with joy and enthusiasm.

But time goes by.  Opening and closing the same door to the same old people can get very monotonous.  The novelty of the new job soon wears off.   Slowly but surely the dust of custom begins to fall and accumulate on him and his world.  A deadly routine takes over, snuffing out all joy and spontaneity.  He becomes caged in by habits.  Attitudes settle and harden.  He’s getting used to the job.  A person can get used to almost anything, it just takes time.  Smugness and complacency follow, and these act like a blight on his character.  He begins slowly but surely to pursue a descending and ever darkening path.

Now, since he holds the keys to the door he is in a very powerful position.  He owes nothing to anybody but many people owe a lot to him.  He becomes cold and unfeeling in the exercise of his authority.  His fellow servants have to bow and scrape to him before he will condescend to open the door for them.   Unwittingly power corrupts him and he makes an idol of himself.

After a time it becomes just a job for him.  He is still responsible and he remains at his post, but he is only going through the motions and in many ways he is little better than a robot.  His main reason for staying is the security the job provides.  The initial love and enthusiasm have faded away into nothing.  When the householder returns he will undoubtedly find him at his post, but this man won’t be alive, he will be dead, for he will have lost his soul.

Habit is a scourge that paralyses and in the end snuffs out all life.  We constantly need to be encouraged and challenged, even provoked and goaded from time to time like a stubborn donkey.  And isn’t it remarkable how easily we fall into a particular routine, and make a beaten track for ourselves.   And woe to the person who tries to disturb us or correct us.  How worn and how dusty are the roads of life, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity.  We forget we once had dreams.  We sit in our armchairs practising idle and musty values, passing judgment on everything and everybody.

It can so easily happen that we become Catholics by habit only.  Over the years the dust of routine has been falling silently and secretly.  Now perhaps it blots out everything or almost everything.  We find ourselves going through the motions; taking part in rituals has lost all freshness and meaning.  We don’t hear the Gospel anymore.  It just goes in one ear and out the other.  Slowly, the face of Christ vanishes from our sight.

We are all that doorkeeper.  It was Our Lord who put me in charge: in charge first of my own house: the house of my soul.  Then in charge of those around me: in the sense that I am supposed to take an interest in the well-being of my community, my family and friends and with those with whom I share my life.

The season of Advent calls us to wake up; it calls us to arise from sleep, to cast off complacency and the dull, deadly routine.  Unlike Lent, Advent doesn’t really call us to try harder or to say more prayers, Advent doesn’t call us to go to Confession more frequently, nor even does it call us to exercise a greater charity towards others.  Not, of course, that all these things are to be given up.

Rather, Advent is a time for reflecting upon the course of our life.  Have we deliberately occupied ourselves in such a way that we have been able to ignore our deeper needs?  Have we really woken up to our need for God?  If we haven’t then there isn’t much point in ‘trying harder’ to live the Christian life.  Trying harder will achieve no more than our efforts to push a heavy car with its brakes on.  Before we can achieve more in our Christian life we must realize our need for the ‘source’ of life.

And this is something every single one of us can do.  And it has nothing at all to do with ability or intelligence or age or education.  It’s a matter simply of recognizing our hopelessness and our helplessness; of realizing that without God life would be much harder.  Once we are aware of our need for God it is much easier to welcome him when he comes.

And yet while Advent is about waiting for God to come into our lives, it’s good for us to remember that God has been waiting for us longer than we have been waiting for Him!

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