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Watchfulness, drunkenness and the worries of life

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

In today's Gospel reading, Jesus encourages us to be watchful. What does that look like?

The incitement to be watchful stands in the context of the coming of the Son of Man: “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” In the past, verses like these have led to much speculation about the timing of Christ’s second coming, but Jesus more than once warns us not to speculate about that: “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mt 24:36). If it is not about predicting the future, what does being watchful look like?

Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus helpfully names two groups of people who are not watchful: “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” (Lk 21:43). 

That drunkards are not watchful is obvious: they tend to fall asleep, and even when they wake up, they wake up with a hangover; still not very watchful. But what about the people whose hearts are weighed down by the worries of this life? Are they not very awake, even stressfully so? They may have their eyes wide open, Luke seems to say, but they are not watchful.

The worries Luke speaks about are the worries that are the result of fear, of being overanxious: overanxious whether you will pass your next exam, overanxious whether your girlfriend will stay with you, overanxious about your reputation. The great temptation in this fear is to try to control everything to make sure that what you fear will not happen. It is usually the best way to make sure that it in fact does happen. 

I think that priest was right who said that Gospel watchfulness is a combination of two things: One the one hand being to the point, commonsensical: when someone asks something of you, then react. And on the other hand: a calm attentiveness. Being watchful means being free, free of worries about yourself, free of being overanxious, so that your life can become a life of calm attentiveness, of watchfulness for the moments when God calls you. 

It was on a Sunday morning in 1942, at a time when there were raids everywhere in her city of Amsterdam, that Etty Hillesum, that remarkable Jewish woman, wrote in her diary: 

“There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, ‘I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.’ But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms.” 

Etty Hillesum was a woman who was free, free to be watchful, to listen to where God called her. It was for this reason that she consistently turned down offers to go into hiding. She said that she wished to "share her people's fate". She did share her people’s fate when she went back to transit camp Westerbork to support the Jewish people there, and she did share it completely when she eventually died in Auschwitz.

Most of us are not called to be as heroic as Etty was. Watchfulness can be asked in things that might seem small: when a child wants your attention, when a poor person asks for help, when people want to share their joys or their sorrows with you. Small or great, there will be moments when the Lord calls. Today’s Gospel reminds us that we do not need to let fear rule over our lives, that we can be free to be watchful, to be calm and attentive to whatever it is God calls us to. 

Today's Gospel is Luke 12:39-48; the readings of the day can be found here.

Br Stefan Mangnus O.P.


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