The necessity for watchfulness
Last Thursday I went to the Interfaith awareness training in Southall, which is an extraordinary area of London where in the space of a few hundreds yards you have the Church, the Mosque, the Sikh and Hindu Temples. The training consisted in visiting the different places of prayer and worship, listening to the other religious leaders and engaging with them through questions. Although it was just for a few hours, it was a fascinating experience about feeling their faiths from inside and understanding our the interfaith dialogue works in the Church of England.
While listening to them I realised how much we have in common: they are all very welcoming religious communities. The Sikh and the Hindu faiths have -at different level- a real sense of equality among the believers. Also, the Sikh and the Muslim religions believe there is just one god, while the Hindu, instead, believe that there is just one god who’d manifest himself under different forms, which could be godesses or gods. The Sikh have also a truly sense of hospitality and charity: they have a huge kitchen in their temple, which serves a free meal to everyone on a daily basis. Very interesting, indeed!
However, something that I could not really find in the faith leaders’ presentation to us was a sense of watchfulness. I’ll explain why.
All my life I believed that what makes Christianity truly distinctive from other religions is Jesus Christ himself. And indeed, he is the main mark of distinction for us. However, just now I realised that there also a sense of watchfulness that makes us very distinctive from other faiths. It is true that the Islam believes that the Prophet Mohammed will come at the end of times, but they don’t really expect him to come now or on their daily life. Their religion guides them through prayer and an ethos based on honesty and good authentic human values, but all their prophetic revelations already happened in the past. They are part of their spirituality, but they don’t expect anyone to come.
In our Christian faith, instead, we have a real sense of expectation for Jesus to come. Advent, which will start in two weeks time, is actually the time of expectation for the coming of the Lord. We would pray through the Hebrew invocation “Maranatha” which means: “Come, Lord, come!”.
That’s why we are called to be watchful, vigilant. The whole liturgy of Advent -and of the whole liturgical calendar- is built around this fundamental and profoundly spiritual experience of the coming of the Lord. How can we be watchful then? This is what today’s gospel is all about: watchfulness. Indeed, it put us into the right perspective.
Once more, we read one of the set of parables that Matthew writes trying to describe the different attitudes necessary to prepare ourselves for the “coming of the Lord”. It is extremely interesting to notice that there is a twofold coming of Jesus for us Christians: the first one is in our daily life, which we celebrate liturgically and existentially at the same time.
As a matter of fact, the liturgy has been designed to teach us to be watchful during particular times of the year: Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter as well as Patronal Festivals and other religious occasions. They mark the pace of our daily life by building that spiritual and human sense of expectation, which again would embody a spirit of watchfulness.
At the same time, there is need for an existential watchfulness for my personal and community life. We know that personal events, important decisions related to my present and future life, people I meet, the person I fall in love: all that would have a deep impact in my life, my family and community.
How do I prepare for them? Are they just a matter of coincidence? Or is there a real sense of watchfulness? An attitude towards them that would help me to read the presence of God who comes to my life through the people I meet, the decisions I make, the people I love and by whom I’m loved?
These are the real questions while we set off to Christmas.
The first thing to say about the need for watchfulness is that we know the Lord is coming, but we don’t know when. We have always to be ready. The parable of the ten bridesmaids -which in Matthew is told just before the parable of the Talents- gives us a very good picture of how to wait for him.
It teaches to be attentive, to observe and discern the signs of his coming. It encourages us to be intelligent, which in his original latin meaning “Intus legere” would mean “to read inwardly”, and essentially understanding. Something we may call “to read between lines”, but certainly in a more spiritual and profound way. It’s the gift of understanding. The parable of the Talents also tells us to not waste our time wondering what to do while waiting for the coming of the Lord, but using our time to make the most of if by being multipliers of the grace of God. Serving our community, being ready to help anyone and sharing as much as we can is a very evangelical signs that we are on the right track. In that sense we experience our limitations because very often we struggle to be “intelligent”. Sometimes we could fall asleep while waiting for the Lord to come, just like the disciples while praying in the Getsemani or the foolish bridesmaids.
Today’s gospel is also a warning against the biggest temptation: selfishness which brings to laziness. The man who hides his talent is very cleverly described Matthew’s gospel, because he is able to justify his laziness/selfishness. And that’s probably why the Lord’s judgement is so hard on me: not because of his sin, but because he so proud and arrogant to want to justify his self-indulgence and egoism without showing any sign of repentance.
Let’s be watchful then! Let’s ask God for the gift of intelligence and understanding to be able to spot the signs of selfishness when they show up in our daily life. And most of all, being watchful would help us to avoid the big temptation to justify ourselves. “I’m sorry I can’t help, I have more important things to do”. “I can’t really make it. I’m so busy right now”, and so on and so forth. Being watchful would also mean put ourselves into the right direction towards Advent and Christmas time. Let’s be “intelligent” in our use of time, spiritual energy, gifts and skills. We will then discover that when we give up “my time” to devote myself more to the service of the community, when somebody else’s needs come before mine, when I put the others -the congregation, the community, my family and people who need me the most- before me, then my spirit and soul become watchful and sensitive to the presence of the Lord among us.