'Stay awake!' This robust, if ritual, call to vigilance opens the season of Advent; the Gospel seeks to rouse us from the spiritual torpor to which we are prone. It's always been a hard call, but may be all the harder today when we are lulled to a cynical weariness by the dreary, vulgar, tinsel-decorated consumerism that a modern Advent heralds.
The difficulty of staying spiritually awake runs deep. Today's Gospel comes from the closing, climactic chapters of Matthew's Gospel, where this call to vigilance re-echoes some five times. Jesus will lead his disciples in the gathering darkness to Gethsemane and bid them keep watch with him while he prays. But three times he will return to find them sleeping.
Just as physical exhaustion can come over the body, so a spiritual sleep, accidie, or sloth, can overtake the soul. In a society fixated on sexual ethics and misdemeanours sloth has slipped under the radar. It has not disappeared, and is perhaps all the more dangerous for being unobserved. What is this sloth? It's a form of apathy, a neglect of our own spiritual good because of the effort involved. 'The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' -- we remember the proverb; but few now realise that these are Jesus' words at Gethsemane: 'Stay awake and pray that you enter not into temptation; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'
Jesus gives us a picture of sloth in today's Gospel. Noah labours to build an ark, a means of salvation, but the others are too caught up in their own pleasures to attend to the clouds overhead. They suspect nothing, and prefer it that way. Whatever their better judgement, they are simply swept along by the round of daily life until the waters of the Flood sweep them away.
It's important not to confuse this kind of sloth with sheer idleness. In fact it's often masked by a stultifying busyness, business as usual for the neighbours, when Noah takes time to note the gathering storm. Identify the things you know you should do, but never somehow manage to find time for, and perhaps you catch a glimpse of sloth, as it shuffles out of sight behind one excuse or another. I know I should, but it's been a long day, and I'm tired, so let's leave it. Sloth says I really should write, should go to confession, but it can surely wait.
Sloth makes us depressed at the prospect of living out the moral imperatives of our Christian life. It sours our delight in what God is preparing for us and in what he is preparing us for. If not confronted it can turn ultimately to hatred of God's goodness and make us reject the very thing we should most embrace.
How do we escape sloth? The Passion narrative strongly suggests that only the grace of God, the Spirit unleashed at Pentecost, can work this change of heart, but given that grace, we can still ask what that escape looks like. St Thomas Aquinas wrote in his Summa Theologiae that 'the more we think about spiritual goods, the more pleasing they become to us, and sloth dies away.' So perhaps staying awake involves the habitual recollection of these spiritual goods, of what is really good for the human spirit, what is good given the fully human life we are to enjoy in heaven.
The season of Advent is designed to further this contemplative task. It reminds us of Christ's second coming and urges us to fast (in a small way) and pray in preparation. We are to keep vigil, like the shepherds who kept a night watch on the hills around Bethlehem and who were met by the host of angels proclaiming the good news of Christ's birth. Why fast and pray? Because fasting and prayer involve a certain detachment, a letting go and a letting happen, which remind us of our freedom to embrace what is new in Christ.
Our prayers, of course, do not persuade God to change his mind, but they change us into creatures who more eagerly desire the will of God. When we pray in the Our Father for the coming of the kingdom, God is preparing us for his triumphant answer to this prayer, the final advent of Christ in glory.