"Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you" (Ephesians 5:14).
I was once pouring through my parents’ bookshelf when I came across an old, leathery bible that belonged to my mom in her childhood. There’s nothing quite like an old book, and especially those old bibles, which seem to soak up the prayers of people with each passing year. Books age in the same way that wine ages. While flipping through the pages of that bible, I came across one of those old black and white pictures, and have never since been the same.
It showed an old man, with a long beard, standing outside in the dead of night, knocking on a door. If you look through your bulletin you’ll see the same picture that I’m describing. A crown is on His head, and a halo around that, and floral growing everywhere. With one hand he knocks, quietly and peacefully. With his other hand, he holds a lantern with a steady light shining in the darkness.
Look up the picture in color, if you’re ever inclined, and take a moment to study it. It’s a masterpiece. But more than a few brilliant strokes and wise choices of color, the painting is a prophecy. You can’t help but look and think, “Wow, that’s the kind of man I’d like to meet.” His plump cheeks and soft robe are no less inviting than Father Christmas, and his face invokes the same kind of excitement and sense of magic that Father Christmas does for young children.
William Holman Hunt painted this in the 1800s, and gave it the name, “The Light of the World,” referencing the Book of Revelation, chapter 3, verse 20, when our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
“Listen! I am knocking.”
You can hear in this painting, at the same time, the words Paul wrote to the Ephesians, “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
We’re in the third week of Advent, and everything in the Church is saying: “Wake up, O sleeper,” “Awake, and let the light of Christ into your soul.”
Today is one of two days in the year, when the ministers and altar are vested in rose. This practice goes back long before pink came to be associated with effeminacy, but rather stood for new life, for the birth of a prince, for the dawn in the early morning that promises us a sunrise. The vestments of the day, just like William Hunt’s painting, urge us to wake up. Someone is coming and is bearing light.
It’s no coincidence either that this week we celebrate the feast of Santa Lucia, or St. Lucy, which Gabriella will tell us about after mass. St. Lucy is a reminder every year that in the midst of the darkness and cold of December, a light is about to be born.
"Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you."
Finally, in our gospel today, we read about John the Baptist and his encounter with the Levites. “The Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem,” the scripture tells us. When they arrived, they asked John this poignant question, “Who are you?” Everyone had heard about John, and all his marvelous works. Hundreds of people had gone out into the desert to meet him, and one by one he baptized the crowds. But who was he? What was he all about? For what purpose was he baptizing in the river of Jordan?
“What sayest thou of thyself?”
They asked him, and John responded, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord.”
In those days, in the bustling streets of a city, a servant would always walk in front of an important person and shout out, “Make way for the Lord! Move aside for his majesty!” and the crowds would step aside and open up a path for the VIP to pass through. John the Baptist’s job was no different. He was the voice of God crying out to His people, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”
The Jews and Levites of that time, who all knew their scriptures, would have recognized a link between John’s words and the Book of Isaiah. Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3, prophecies, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley… The glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”
John the Baptist’s role in that time was clear. He was preparing Israel for the Messiah. But we sometimes forget, in the bustle of our day-to-day lives, how very pertinent St. John is for us here and now. The Church brings us to this Gospel every year, just two weeks short of Christmas, with a specific intention.
“Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
There’s far too much noise in our lives. The cacophony of the shops and television adds at this time of the year are no different than the cacophony in our souls. We forget God simply because we don’t have enough silence to Hear Him.
The dirt on the backs of the Jews, which John washed in the River of Jordan, is no different than the dirt that cleaves to our souls. We fail to see God simply because we’ve allowed grime to cover up the lenses of our hearts.
The rugged hills and valleys that Isaiah describes are all the obsessions and distractions in our own lives, which bar out the Grace of God. John the Baptist calls out to us today as He did 2,000 years ago, “Clear the clutter, so that the King may enter.” “Wake up and open the door, so that the Lord of Light may come inside and dine with you.”
St. Maximus the Confessor, in 6th century, once preached these words about Advent and how important it is for us to use the time for quiet, confession, and preparation. “If women who have the care of a home will on certain days wash with water the garments that are soiled, should we not also make ready our souls for the Birth Day of the Lord, cleansing with our tears the stains of our conscience.”
He goes on: “And they, should they find the garments so soiled and stained, that they cannot be made clean with water alone, add to the water the softening of oil and the acrimony of soap. We likewise, should we have committed sins that are not washed away by repentance alone, let us add the oil of almsgiving and the bitterness of fasting.”
The Lord knocks. Are we ready to receive Him?
The Church calls out to us: “Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
But what if you don’t feel that you’re sleeping at all. Maybe everything seems right in you life. Perhaps you’re comfortable with your relationship with Christ. You’ve given Him 10%, or at least 1%. What else can he ask for? Then the words cry out even louder, “Awake, awake.” For if you’re not aware that you’re sleeping, then you’re sleep is even deeper than you know, and waking is far more beautiful than you’d ever dream.
We can get cozy here and now, but it’s all so dreary and dull compared to what it could be, if we only knew, if we were to open up that crack a little wider, and allow Christ’s light to penetrate our hearts deeper.
This is the message of Advent, and the meaning in John the Baptist’s words to us, to use these weeks to fast harder, pray longer, attend more services, confess at the confessional, try to be a little more conscious of the words you pray, and spend more time sitting in quiet.
It’s night, and our Lord knocks, “Listen! I am standing at the door,” He tells us gently, “If you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
"Wake up, O sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”