December 2, 2007


At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. – Mt. 24: 44

How do we understand “the coming of the Son of Man?” A literal approach sees it as the cosmic coming of an end-time figure in an outer, visible way to judge the living & the dead. Since we cannot know when the last minute will be, enlightened self interest would dictate ongoing, scrupulous observance. The problem with this view is that when this event does not happen, it is difficult to stay poised & waiting. This problem has meant ship wreck for the so-called messianic sects in our country.

There is a different way to understand it, namely, as a code for God’s invitation into the fullness of human life through Christ. We are often not aware of the permeating divine activity in our world. When it does break into our consciousness, then “the day of the Lord” & the “Son of Man” has arrived. We never know when that will happen, so we must stay awake through the night.

The late Frank Samuels recalled the time when his friend Charles Lindberg was flying mail into St. Louis in the late 1920’s. He sometimes found time to hop out to San Diego where his plane, “The Spirit of St. Louis,” was being built. Samuels would go along with him to inspect the work. After a long day, the two would stay in a small side street hotel. One night Samuels woke up shortly after midnight & noticed that Lindberg’s bed was unoccupied. He saw Lindberg sitting by the window, looking out at the stars. “For goodness sake,” he asked, “why are you sitting there at this hour?” “Just practicing.” “Practicing what?” “Staying awake all night,” said Lindberg. Such practice was needed because a successful flight across the Atlantic demanded alertness over a long period of time.

Likewise, there is a sense in which our various spiritual exercises constitute practice at staying alert to the gentle promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But preparation for the day of the Lord does not mean stopping everyday life. True, the demands of everyday life are merciless. This constant activity may be boring or exciting, but in any event breeds lack of attention to the demands of God. The “world” is a place of forgetfulness, or to use Matthew’s metaphor, it is a place where we fall asleep. We do not stay attentive to the spiritual demands of life.

The dominance of activity is particularly true in the Christmas season. The rush of the season works against the message of the season. We wrongly treat spirit as a luxury. If our bodies are hurting or if our financial security or social status is under attack, we pay attention. But we will allow our spirit to languish or even to atrophy. The people of Noah’s time valued everything BUT the Spirit that ultimately sustained them, & they were swept away by the flood.

What to do? How are we to keep awake while working in the field & grinding at the mill? We may have the desire, but we probably lack the know-how. We need to complement desire with strategies. Spiritual exercises may be the rituals & prayers of our faith tradition, but they can also be home grown: personal “things” we have learned to cultivate in order to stay focused on the deeper dimension of life. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition of Christianity, this is accomplished by an abbreviated version of the Jesus prayer: the two words “Jesus” & “mercy” coordinated with breathing. It can be used while waiting for a traffic light to change, or while standing in line.

Here is how Brother Lawrence did it in his Carmelite monastery. In his book, The Practice of the Presence of God, he writes

The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; & in the noise & clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the altar….

Our lives can be flat & lifeless or they can be rich & alive with significance. We can live as though unaware of the nearness of God or, like Brother Lawrence, we can be alert to His coming to us, again & again, in every situation. The choice IS ours. What is it going to be for us this Christmas season? AMEN!