Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!
In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“’Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, . . . Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.’”
The Scriptures heard today are not those ordinarily appointed for this Sunday, but rather are those appointed for the commemoration of a priest-martyr. Today, the Church commemorates St. Alexander Hotovitsky, one time missionary-priest to America, who was martyred by the Bolsheviks under the Communist yoke. The words of our Lord God and Saviour Jesus Christ are providential in that they emphasize the Advent themes of watching and waiting, especially so since we neither know the day nor the hour of the Master’s return nor of our going out to meet Him should He summon us (Mt. 24:36, 44; 25:1-13; Mk. 13:32-37; Lk. 21:34-36).
But, first, we hear this. For those of us who struggle with the insatiable appetite for stuff (which is really a passion of the soul that needs to be healed), our Lord offers the remedy which we heard just a few Sundays ago. “’Sell what you have,’” He says, “’and give alms; provide yourselves money bags which do not grow old, a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches nor moth destroys.’” In this season in which Black Friday deals abound and deep price slashes entice, our Lord encourages us to invest in Heaven, if you will, by offering up to God all that we call our own and by preserving our wealth in the bellies of the poor who will bear us witness at the dread Judgment Seat of Christ. We are to approach this in faith and not fear. Why? Because, Jesus assures us who are His “’little flock,’” “’[I]t is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.’” If we believe this to be the Truth, we are set free to do as our Lord bids us to do since He Himself has sacrificed all for us. That which we fear losing – even our very lives – will, in fact, be preserved in the courts of the Lord’s house (Mt. 16:13-20; Mk. 8:31-38; Lk. 9:18-21). “’For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’”
Our Lord, then, goes on to speak words that are most apropos for these days of the Nativity Fast. In these holy days we are reminded by the Church to be ever preparing for our Lord’s first advent among us in the flesh while His Second Coming is always before us when “He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). Indeed, Jesus assures us, inasmuch as He assures us of the Father’s good pleasure to give us His Kingdom, that He will come in glory with all of His holy angels to reward each according to his or her works (Mt. 16:27; 25:31-32; Mk. 8:38; Lk. 9:26; Jn. 5:28-29). And our demeanor? It is one to be ready, to be prepared, ever watchful, ever vigilant. This is what Jesus tells us today here in the Gospel. “’[F]or the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’”
Now, I already know what we’re doing. We hear those words and file them away where they soon get lost amongst other more pressing and seemingly relevant matters. We’ll get around to it…….some day…….should we remember. But our Lord’s words are more than advice or suggestion. It is His command and in it we find blessing. He does not desire any to be lost but all to be saved (Ek. 18:23, 32; 1 Tm. 2:4). “’Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching.’”
But, Jesus also knows our penchant for growing weary and negligent, something the archenemy of our souls is all too glad to foster in us. Our spirit is amazingly willing, but our flesh is incredibly weak, just as the Disciples amply demonstrate when they couldn’t even stay awake long enough to support our Lord in His great trials of Gethsemane (Mt. 26:36-46; Mk. 32-42; Lk. 22:39-46). This doesn’t mean it’s impossible. It just means we have our work cut out for us. We soon learn that our good intentions, though necessary, aren’t enough. We have to train our souls and bodies to be conformed to the image of the crucified and risen Son of God (Rm. 8:28). We have to enter into the spiritual warfare like a good soldier who submits in obedience to the commands of his superior officer. Or, if you prefer, we become dutiful sons and daughters who honor father and mother.
“’Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning; and you yourselves be like men who wait for their master, . . ., that when he comes and knocks they may open to him immediately.’” We are to be ready at all times to receive the Lord at His coming or, more probably, for Him to receive us when our souls are required of us (Lk. 12:20). “’But know this, that if the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into.’” We hear again and again in Sacred Scripture that we are at all times to be ready and prepared, to be watchful and vigilant. Spiritually, this is generally spoken of in terms of “’Watch and pray’” (Mt. 26:41; Mk. 14:38) or “pray without ceasing” (1 Th. 5:17). “’Blessed is he who watches,’” says our Lord, “’and keeps his garments, . . . .”’ (Rv. 16:15). We must be made worthy of the Kingdom of God, the very Kingdom the Father yearns to give to us as promised by our Lord. But, who among us, outside perhaps of our monastic brethren, can maintain such vigilance, such watchfulness? We are mindful that our God, says the psalmist, never slumbers nor sleeps but remains ever at attention, watching over and guarding His flock (Ps. 120 :1-8). Moreover, the psalmist also speaks of praying to God upon his bed and meditating on God in the night watches, not to mention praying to God seven times a day (Ps. 62 :6; 118 :164). Apart from our beloved monastics, few of us have such stamina to keep night vigils every night. Still, we are to be vigilant, prepared, ready servants of God who at a moment’s notice greet Him upon His coming. So, what does this vigilance, this watchfulness, look like for us?
It looks like this. It behooves us to remember God at all times and in all places. This is what preparedness and readiness is about. This is what watchfulness and vigilance is. The soul that “prays without ceasing” is the soul that remembers God. This remembrance of God takes on a variety of forms and is cultivated and nurtured by a variety of means. It can be as simple as the making of the sign of the Cross frequently throughout the day. But, it is no less than by what the Tradition of the Church has received and passes on to her children: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – the traditional triad forming the spiritual life. The remembrance of God incorporates and looks like the “obedience of faith” spoken of by St. Paul (Rm. 1:5; 16:26). Keeping the Faith by doing the Faith is the remembrance of God. It is vigilance and watchfulness for us Christians. Christians who fail to keep the Faith by doing the Faith are ill-prepared to meet the Master at His coming. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving support us in this endeavor; they keep us ever mindful of God as we go about doing the Faith. “’Blessed is that servant whom his master finds so doing when he comes’” (Lk. 12:43). But, Jesus warns, that the servant who knew the master’s will and yet becomes negligent and lapses in the obedience of faith will suffer judgment at the master’s return (Lk. 12:41-48). Thus, we are to “Watch, stand fast in the Faith, be brave, be strong [in the Lord and in the power of His might]” (1 Cr. 16:13; Ep. 6:10).
Vigilance and watchfulness are most often associated with prayer in Orthodoxy, most specifically the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner!” which is repeated again and again until it becomes woven into our souls, our hearts, and our minds and sort of takes on a dynamic life of its own. We do not have to be monks and nuns for this prayer to take root in our souls and to pray itself in us. All it takes is practice, and repetition is the hallmark of practice that makes perfect. The Jesus Prayer keeps God ever before us, in front of us as He leads us through the paths of this old world. It is all that we need now, and at the hour of our death. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.” The soul that learns this prayer will find that it is the prayer that sustains us during the night watches even as we lay ourselves down to sleep. In fact, we might even find ourselves praying it as we awake because our holy guardian angel has been helping us to pray it in the night watches.
Vigilance and watchfulness for us baptized also involves the remembrance of our mortality, or more to the point, our death. This is not a macabre thing, unless we make it that, but a beautiful and fruitful exercise in the Truth. “’Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return’” (Gn. 3:19). This is what God says to Adam following the Fall. This remembrance – long embraced by the Church and her monastics – has a way of freeing us by putting things in proper perspective (Sr. 28:6). We all have an end that we can either strive against out of fear or receive in faith. It is an end for which we all must be ready for for we know not the day nor the hour when our soul will be required of us, when our Lord and His holy angels will come to us. The Wisdom of Sirach offers us good counsel, “With all your words, remember the time you will die, and you will never sin” (Sr. 7:36). If we keep always before us our death, it will guide us to love God and our neighbor more mightily, and will cause us to recall that we are not in charge, we are not in control, we are not God. So, using St. Paul’s words elsewhere, we will
lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and . . . run the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hb. 12:1-2).
Because of our Lord’s tasting death for each of us, as St. Paul assures us, we now have a Great High Priest Who is at once our Saviour and our Brother. He has been perfected through His Sufferings for us so that He may sanctify us and bring us with Himself into the very Presence of the true and living God, His Father, and have mercy on us repentant sinners (Hb. 2:9-18; 4:14-16). Repentance, beloved, putting off of our sin, keeps us in remembrance of our God Who will one day summon us before His dread Judgment Seat.
Of course, all of this is captured for us as we prepare to receive the coming of the Master in the Holy Eucharist. We practice keeping vigil and watchfulness as we pray the Pre-Communion Prayers (which we are obligated to do as part and parcel of our being ready to receive Jesus). In fact, as we participate in the life of the Church – the Body of Christ God and the Bride of our Lord – we remember God and are vigilant and watchful, as He has commanded. He meets us here in the Church, and most specifically, most truly, here at the Altar where His Body and His Blood are. Here, we come to worship Him and to serve Him, “in the fear of God, and with faith and love,” and, lo, He serves us! For, when the master comes, “’Assuredly, I say to you that he will gird himself and have [his vigilant servants] sit down to eat, and will come and serve them.’” In short, if we desire to be watchful and waiting on God, to be in remembrance of God, we need to participate in the life of the Church where God is to be found present and abiding, to be “partakers of His divine nature” (2 Pe. 1:4). Beloved, if we cannot prepare to receive the Lord at a time we know He is coming (here in the services of His house), how will we ever be prepared to receive Him at a time we do not know? If sin keeps us from receiving the Master at His coming in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, then put off your sin, come to Confession to rid yourself of that which ensnares you, and receive His absolution! If sin keeps us from the Eucharist, how will sin not keep us from Him at a time He comes unexpectedly for our soul when we will have no time to repent?
‘Do not fear, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom. . . . Let your waist be girded and your lamps burning. . . . Blessed are those servants whom the master, when he comes, will find watching. . . . [B]e ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. . . . For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; . . . .’ (Lk. 12:48).
Through the prayers of our holy Fathers, especially those of the Hieromartyr Alexander, O Lord Jesus Christ our God, have mercy on us and save us. Amen.
Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory forever!