I wake up every morning to the sound of a dozen or more people talking as they line up around our parish building. Some people are still sleeping in the shelter of the inset near our front door. Others pack up quickly to claim a place in line for our morning hospitality center. Still others will sleep off the cheep booze from the night before.
Waking up to this reality wears me down, especially during the Advent season. Sleeping in a heavenly peace seems like such a dream. This reality seems more like nightmares for people carving out a warm place to be safe under mounds of damp cardboard. Others go weeks without slumber because of drug overuse. Other people sleep all day long due to deep depression. A few people sleep at our door with no blankets, no possessions, no cardboard box or coat or hat, just the concrete for a pillow.
The issues of sleep and waking up create real problems for our parish community. Every morning members of our staff come to work and nudge people out of sleep who are blocking the entrance to the building’s door. During the noon Eucharist when our offices are closed, other people obstruct the exit trying to catch a quick nap. Some people fall asleep in our pews during the noontime Mass – especially the corporate executives.
Advent is the time for people in every parish community to wake up to the reality that surrounds us all. Stay awake! This command in Matthew’s Gospel challenges us to wake up to our timidity toward people’s needs. Advent instills in our communities the deep passion for why Jesus came into the world in the first place. We need to get off our common couches and do something about how people are living in the world.
Advent calls us to claim the dignity of all people. We do this by waking up to the real paradoxes of our day. In this time of year when we overeat, we are called to acknowledge the billion people in the world starving for basic bread. In this time of buying, accumulating, fussing over the correct gifts, Advent scriptures should claim a new awareness of our possessions no matter in which community we live.
No believer wears camel hair and feasts on locusts anymore, but the Sunday gospels need to capture our imaginations about whether or not people have decent clothing. We need more than ever in a downward economy to rouse new attitudes about how we care for elderly people or the mentally ill person who needs a community in which to rest. As members of any worshipping community, we need to find new ways to welcome our homosexual children back from college, our cousin who lost everything gambling on the Internet and our uncle who walked out of his marriage. We all need to come to grips with our real possessions, our relatives and friends.
The Advent Gospels proclaimed in every parish shake us up to see that the lame walk, lepers become cleansed, the deaf hear and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. This is the time to rouse communities from the sleep of apathy and complacency. We need to preach about the needs of people living in poverty even though other people do not want to hear about it. We need now to invite our children into real and dedicated service so that they can witness the parish community doing something worthwhile. We need to invest not only in people who cannot make ends meet, but also in our children who are walking away from our worshipping communities.
Waking up is never easy, but the issue of our sleepy attitudes is the core of the Advent season. We open ourselves to real people because Christ became flesh and invested himself humbly in our human world. He took on the humility of flesh so that we could see all people as divinely loved.
A couple of Christmas’ ago a strong-willed, homeless woman, Bonnie, blocked our only doorway during Christmas Eve Mass. She piled up blankets and carts in a matter of minutes by our red doors. She opened containers of food and invited street people to join her. She smoked a few cigarettes and spoke loudly to passersby. She prepared a place to sleep while members of the parish sang carols and broke bread and shared the cup and proclaimed that Christ is born for people.
I walked out into the lobby as Mass ended and could not believe my eyes. No one could exit the chapel. I scurried to persuade her to move her belongings. Some parishioners helped her move her camp to the side of the building. Knowing Bonnie and seeing her bright eyes, I am convinced she held us captive in the chapel so we could wake up to the meaning of the Incarnation, the Body of Christ in our real world.