Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert! For you do not know when the time will come.
“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.
“”And what I say to you I say to all: Watch!”
By Father Patrick Hannon, C.S.C., ‘88M.Div.
Long before I joined the ranks of the working class as a ten-year-old paperboy, I was a lookout. I recall one afternoon when my oldest brother Brian (he was perhaps nine years old) had me stand on top of the toilet tank in our upstairs bathroom, which stood below a window, and keep my eye trained on the street below and to report any Mom sightings. I couldn’t have been five yet—a tiny boy with the visual acuity of a wary gazelle—but apparently my brother saw something potentially conspiratorial in me. I don’t remember what he was up to, but clearly it was no good. Still, I took my job seriously. I saw it almost as a promotion, a reason to believe that I had something of actual value to offer the family.
It strikes me now, as we enter this season of Advent—this time of wide open eyes and dropped jaws and chills running up and down our spines—that perhaps we have all been drafted by Jesus into his ragtag army of holy hope catchers. We have been enlisted not just as lovers and dreamers, but also as lookouts—we happy insomniacs, who take it as our special charge to scan the horizon at 3 a.m., peer into the faintly erupting dawn, and look for any sign, any hint, any vibration of a galloping God.
I rather like the idea that part of my job description as a disciple of Jesus Christ is to—in a way—stand by the bathroom window and keep an eye out for Mom. The boy that lives in me still hopes this is so. Nothing to me back then seemed as important—not Jell-O pudding, my cat, or the tree fort I would build a few summers later with Boober and J.P., my friends down the street. Sometimes I would look out that upstairs window, on my own time, for 15, 20 minutes, just to see if something or someone (a flitting sparrow, a shooting star, a silver coin leaning sideways in a gutter, a whistling, skipping girl, a weeping boy—the possibilities are endless) might startle or haunt or delight me into a more thrilling, deeper dimension of living.
However or whenever Jesus returns to bring us and all of creation home with him, I do know this: it will be sudden. I know we all hope that there will be telling signs and wonders well before his actual return. I know we all hope we will get fair warning. But the wise boy inside me tells me not to bank on that. Because it seems to me every encounter we have now with God—all those sacramental moments when we get a glimpse, a gulp, a whiff, a whisper of the Divine—these sacred collisions—always come as a surprise. Such is the nature of every joyful encounter: it startles the soul to blessed, happy tears.
I don’t remember if my mother ever became aware of the fragile conspiracies we kids scaffolded around her comings and goings. I don’t know if she ever knew how often we kept a lookout for her, lest she arrive at a moment we didn’t expect and find us doing something astonishingly stupid. But I bet if she did, she would have been secretly impressed, in the way, I think, Jesus will be when he finds us by a window, let’s say, jumping up and down at dawn or at midnight, delighted by the fact that we saw him first.
For more insight from Father Hannon, check out his new collection of essays, Sacrament: Personal Encounters with Memories, Wounds, Dreams, and Unruly Hearts.