Dear Sisters and Brothers,

It is only when we are awakened to the danger of a particular situation that we begin to react.  Recently I was part of a conversation about things that happen when the plane is landing.  A friend was on board an aircraft as it was landing when suddenly a strong side-wind blew it from over the runway and it had to quickly gain height and come round again to make a fresh attempt.  It was quite a strong jolt and to his amazement when he looked at his arm the person next to him had grabbed it and was holding on so tightly that their nails were drawing blood through his shirt!  Whatever the reality of the situation, that person had been awakened to a real or perceived danger and reacted as many of us might.  When the danger passes, however, we resume our almost sleep-like passage through life and its day to day events.

Listening to our first reading from Isaiah, I get the impression that something has happened to awaken the people from their sleep.  The language is dramatic and powerful, as they call out to God in their desperation: Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down – at your presence the mountains would melt.  You were angry when we were sinners; we had long been rebels against you.  No-one invoked your name or roused himself to catch hold of you.  Come on God, show us that you really are there; we need you now, prove yourself!  And as they cry out they also realise that they need to rouse themselves and catch hold of God, their Father, their redeemer, for there is no-one else to save them.

Faced with our vulnerability and some real or perceived danger, many of us, surely, have added our cry and plea to that of the people of Isaiah’s time and people through the ages who find themselves desperate and in need of redemption?  We might not have put it as eloquently as Isaiah, or as crudely as my parody, but the essentials of the prayer would have been there.  And had God’s arm been physically present to us, we also might have drawn blood through his shirt, so eager would we be to catch hold of him!

Jesus gives us good, short, sharp, advice in today’s gospel, and at the same time sets the tone as we begin this new season of Advent: You do not know when the master of the house is coming….he must not find you asleep….Stay awake!

We can’t afford to sleep-walk through life.  Yes we all react to danger and difficult situations.  Having recognised our own vulnerability we can feel the adrenalin flow and ourselves getting into gear.  And it is certainly true that desperation can drive us to renewed faith and attachment to God.  However, the message of Advent and indeed the message of the Incarnation is that our God is with us now and always.  He never leaves us; we are not orphaned or alone anywhere or at any time: For you, Lord, yourself are our Father, Our Redeemer is your ancient name.

If we stay awake and do not allow ourselves to be found asleep when the master returns we will recognise that the Lord has provided us with all that we need for our lives to flourish here and now and into eternity.  All the gifts, all the tools all the wherewithal is there if we look, if we expect to find, if we trust, if we hope in his love for us.  St Paul reminds the Corinthians and all of us in our second reading: ….You will not be without any of the gifts of the Spirit while you are waiting for Our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed.

So now is the time to become alert, to shake off the lethargy that seems to come at this time of the year as the darkness thickens and extends almost to the exclusion of daylight.  This is the moment to invoke His Name and rouse ourselves to catch hold of Him.  The other part of our prayer, asking God to tear the heavens open and come down, has already been answered in his Son’s Incarnation – Jesus, the Son of God made man is among us, has redeemed us, and walks at our side through this life and into eternity.  This is what our faith tells us.  And we have all that is necessary to complete our journey.  But we need to stay awake and be on our guard or we might be robbed of these rich truths and be deceived by the fashionable teachings of the age.

So cry out to the Lord that he might come again into our world, into our lives. Invoke his Holy Name and hold on tight to him.  Understand that you have all the gifts of the Spirit that you need, and, most of all, be on your guard and stay awake!  And in this way we can make the prayers of the Mass today truly our own as we begin this Advent season together.

Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ
and may the mysteries
in which we participate at this season,
profit us, we pray;
for even now, as we walk amid passing things,
you teach us by them to love the things of heaven
and hold fast to what endures.

Yours in blessed hope,

Bishop of Middlesbrough