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December 1, 2002

“Be watchful, be alert!”

(Mark 13:33-37)

Advent is one of my favorite times of the year. Advent is about prayer and waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ. It's about living in hope and peace, turning to God, getting ready, living in expectation, and keeping watch.

This passage from the end of the Gospel of Mark has Jesus' final words just before he is arrested and killed: "Be watchful, be alert, stay awake, what I say to you, I say to all, Watch!" So advent is about keeping watch for Christ.

On this first Sunday of Advent, the Gospel invites us to be contemplatives, to be people of prayer, to be wide awake, to never sleep, to be spiritual insomniacs for Christ, always on the lookout for Christ, loving and serving one another, generous and alert.

I would like to propose that each one of us take fifteen minutes or more of silent contemplative prayer each day from now to Christmas. I'm not talking about reading the Bible or saying the rosary or going to Mass or praying in your truck as you drive through the desert. I presume we will still do that.

I'd like to invite us to take time in the morning or evening, to light a candle, sit in a chair, close our eyes, take a deep breath, and try to imagine you are with God. Perhaps imagine that Jesus is sitting there next to you. Imagine Jesus looking at you. What does he look like? What does he say to? Maybe God says simply, "I love you, I'm with you, I'm happy to be with you. I want you to be with me."

That's what I mean by contemplative prayer and keeping watch: sitting with Christ, developing and deepening our relationship with Christ, talking to him and listening to him.

Now you may say, "That's nice, Fr. John, but there's no way I'm going to do that."

Prayer is the simplest thing in the world, the easiest thing in the world, and the hardest thing in the world, that's why so few people like to sit still in silence and prayer.

Athletes do physical exercises to get in shape physically; we have to do spiritual exercises to get in shape spiritually. I'm your coach urging you to go back in there and sit in prayer with God.

I know Trappists monks who live in monasteries and spend seven hours a day in silent contemplative prayer, and have been doing this for years and will do it for the rest of their lives, keeping watch for Christ.

When I entered the Jesuits twenty years ago, they said I had to spend 30-60 minutes a day in prayer. They put us on a thirty day silent retreat. We couldn't talk to anyone for thirty days. We had no TV, no radio, no mail, no newspapers, no phone calls, nothing; just total silence, and five hours a day contemplating the Gospels. Each year, we're invited to make an eight day silent retreat.

Each day now I try to take quiet time with Jesus in contemplative prayer, to try to live in relationship with him, so that he knows me and I can try to know him and he can help me and I can be his instrument of love and peace.

I think Christ wants to be with us, he wants to come to us, but few people want to spend quality, intimate time with him. Advent is a good time to try to deepen our spiritual lives, to go deeper into prayer.

Keeping watch with Christ in prayer means waiting for God, thinking about God, being with God, listening to God, loving God, and adoring God. In this world of violence, greed, injustice, and war, prayer can heal us, disarm us and lead us to Christ's peace.

Advent is a time to prepare ourselves again for Christ's coming to us in our hearts and our world. This week, I also invite you to discuss your prayer life with each other: What happens when you pray? Whom do you pray to? What is your image of God? How do you imagine God? Where do you experience God? Where are you finding God these days, as you keep watch? These are important questions to ask.

My hope is that this Advent can be a holy season, a time of grace, for all of us to deepen our contemplative prayer, to keep watch with Christ, to disarm our hearts and prepare for his coming and his gift of Christmas peace.

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