Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.
The Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost.
Our Holy Father Gregory the Wonder-Worker, Bishop of Neocaesarea.
The Passing of the Blessed Martyr Josaphat Kocylovskyj, Bishop of Peremyshal.
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8:35 PM 11/18/2013 — “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light” (Eph. 5:14). Pretty words that St. Paul quotes for us in today's Apostolic reading from Ephesians. The only problem with them is that no one seems to know what he's quoting.
Chapter Five of Ephesians begins with a familiar enough theme for the Apostle; he catalogs all sorts of immoral things that pagans do, and how Christians must have nothing to do with them:
As for debauchery, and impurity of every kind, and covetousness, there must be no whisper of it among you; it would ill become saints; no indecent behaviour, no ribaldry or smartness in talk; that is not your business, your business is to give thanks to God (Eph. 5:3-4).
And this is a common rant for St. Paul; he does this in almost every letter. He goes on to link this to the idea that would become the opening theme of St. John's Gospel: that man is born into darkness—the darkness of sin—and Christ is the “true Light that enlightens every man.” I say “would become” because, at this point, John has not yet written his Gospel. And you can see, I hope, why the Fathers of the Church gave us this reading to consider at the beginning of Phillip's Fast, because that's what Phillip's Fast—and, to a certain extent, every penitential season—is all about: taking stock of our lives and reforming them. The Apostle lights—no pun intended—on the idea on which our Lord on so often hammers: the notion of walking “as a child of the light”; that it's only sinful men who need to walk in darkness so as to hide their shameful deeds, but the Christian has no need because everything he does is righteous. Then the Apostle says, “That is the meaning of the words, 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.'”
There is no doubt, by the manner in which he quotes this sentence, that he's assuming that it's well known to everyone. He does this all the time with verses from the Psalms, from Isaiah and other prophets, and even from well-known sayings of our Lord which would be recorded in the Gospels later on. Sometimes he even quotes them incorrectly, as we saw back in the Apostolic reading from the Eighteenth Sunday from Second Corinthians, where he fumbles the line from Proverbs about God loving a cheerful giver; but it was still obvious what he was trying to quote, and we speculated—I'm sure you don't remember—that he was quoting it wrong on purpose because he wanted to make a point. But this sentence—“Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light”—strangely beautiful and mysterious, simply does not occur anywhere in the Bible. He seems so certain that everyone reading his letter knows it; but, from where do they know it?
As I was preparing this homily, I consulted every conceivable commentary on Ephesians I could find, including the Biblia Clarus, which is the Holy See's official electronic Scripture commentary for Catholic priests, which referred me to St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine and about three dozen popes; but, everyone seems to just gloss over this phrase without identifying it. The only person who tries is Monsignor Ronald Knox who, in 1945, gave us the first Catholic translation into English of the Bible in many centuries, which is the one that I usually quote from even though it's very old fashioned; he has a footnote to this verse in which he suggests that the line may come from a very early baptismal hymn that was sung rather frequently.
Now, before you fall out of your pew in a comatose state, there is a point to all of this, and I credit our Holy Father John Chrysostom for it: in the verse just following this line, St. Paul says, “See then, brethren, how carefully you have to tread, not as fools, but as wise men do, hoarding the opportunity that is given you, in evil times like these” (5:15). Three week's ago, on the Sunday where we read about the Gadarene Swine, I gave you a very odd homily about how easily we can become upset while watching the news, and how it might be to our spiritual advantage not to watch, or at least not to watch it too much. Some of you mentioned how that homily spoke to you, and for that I'm grateful. St. Paul is making a very similar point. He's saying: Look, we're living in evil times. The world is all screwed up. We can't go merrily on our way assuming that we can practice our faith in passivity without a struggle. The world is against us and our way of life. We cannot afford the luxury of a simplistic approach to our faith. “See...how carefully you have to tread, not as fools, but as wise men.” By fools, he means those who think they can just “bebop” their way through life as if Christian living is a walk in the park; by wise men, he means those who understand that around every corner is someone who wants to derail us on our path toward heaven, and the Christian has to be slippery as a fox to stay on track. And how do we do that? Bingo! Look right back at verse fourteen, where the Apostle tells the Ephesians: “That is the meaning of the words, 'Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.'” They were singing this hymn over and over again, whenever they did a baptism, and it's meaning in that context is pretty obvious; but, he's giving them a second context to consider. “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead....” Wake up and smell the coffee. We can't just go to church and go home and go on with our lives as if everything's normal, because it's not. These are evil times; or, as someone once said, “you're not really paranoid if they really are all out to get you.”
And out to get us they are. This new health care law is going to force us to close our hospitals, or at least abandon them to secular control. Our once massive orphanage and adoption system has already been shut down because of our refusal to give children to gay couples. In some states, priests who won't marry gay couples stand to go to prison. In some countries, like Canada, a priest can go to jail for simply speaking against gay marriage or abortion. What's sad is that we have allowed these things to be done to us. How? St. Paul tells us: “No, you cannot afford to be reckless; you must grasp what the Lord's will is for you. Do not besot yourselves with wine; that leads to ruin” (5:17-18). Besot means to stupefy. The wine of which he speaks is symbolic. In other words, we did this to ourselves by putting our own needs and desires above those of the Church and society. We voted for the ones who promised us stuff, rather than the ones who stood for truth. We professed a faith in Christ, and pretended to be Christians; but, when the time came to make a choice, we looked to what we wanted first. He goes on to say, “Let your contentment be in the Holy Spirit; your tongues unloosed in psalms and hymns and spiritual music, as you sing and give praise to the Lord in your hearts” (5:18-19). I think this may have been what lead Msgr. Knox to believe that the mysterious line from verse fourteen is from a hymn; it was something they were singing all the time, but they weren't singing it from the heart: “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead....” By their passivity, they were sleeping through their own destruction, just as we are.
You know what happens right after this in the Epistle to the Ephesians? In the very same paragraph in which he says all of this, the Apostle gives us what may be the most controversial verse in all the Bible: “Wives must obey their husbands as they would obey the Lord” (5:22). I'm not going to parse that one for you—at least not today—except to point out that it's just another example of how counter-cultural our religion would be should we ever muster the courage to live it entirely, without diluting it for the sake of not offending people. In point of fact, eventually, we're going to have to if we're going to survive being swallowed up completely by the evil times in which we live. The real question is to what extent will we be willing to live the Gospel without any concern for what it looks like or how its judged by the world, leaving the consequences in the hands of our Lord. “Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.”