1st Sunday in Advent (A)
Rousing the Baboon Within
Sisters and brothers, some of us here may still remember the documentary from the mid-1970’s entitled Animals are Beautiful People. It contains a sequence showing how an African tribesman goes about catching a baboon. First, he finds a large anthill, in which he drills a small hole. Into the hole, he pours a handful of wild melon seeds. Then he hides nearby and keeps watch. The curious baboon sticks its hand into the hole and grabs the seeds. But, once it does this, its hand gets stuck. The baboon can, of course, release itself quite easily, if only it lets go of the seeds. But it doesn’t seem to realize this. It struggles mightily, but unsuccessfully, to get free, all the while holding on tightly to the seeds, until the tribesman comes over and captures it.
What is it about the baboon that makes it fall into the tribesman’s trap? We can't know for sure what its exact intentions are, but we can perhaps make a guess by observing the baboon’s actions. On the one hand, from its violent attempts to get its hand out of the hole, it’s clear that the baboon wants to be free. But it’s just as clear that it also wants to keep those melon seeds. It refuses to let go of them. What the baboon doesn’t seem to realize is that both these desires are in conflict with each other. To enjoy its freedom it has to relinquish the seeds. It can’t have both. By setting this trap, the tribesman has, in effect, presented the baboon with an opportunity to make a choice. It has to choose between freedom and a handful of seeds. But the baboon fails to realize this. Instead of choosing one or the other, it tries to cling to both. As a result, it ends up letting the tribesman choose on its behalf. Instead of seizing the opportunity that he gives it to make a choice, the baboon allows itself to be seized by him.
Similarly, according to our readings for today, when Jesus comes again at the end of time, we too will be given the opportunity to make a choice. In the first reading, we are told that the time will come when the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest mountain. Here, God’s peace will prevail. On this holy ground, weapons of war will be transformed into instruments of harmony and service. People will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. All we have to do to enjoy this peace is to climb the Lord’s mountain. Or, in the words of the responsorial psalm, all we need to do is simply to go rejoicing into the house of the Lord. This is the opportunity that Christ will present to us when he comes again. We will be given the choice to climb the Lord’s mountain, to enter into God’s house, to enjoy that wonderful peace that the world cannot give. Which of us will not want to do this?
And yet, although this may seem like an easy choice to make, in the gospel, Jesus warns us that things may not be so simple. When the time comes to enter God’s house, various things may hinder us from seizing the opportunity. For example, Jesus reminds us of the experience of Noah, in the book of Genesis, just before the Great Flood covered the earth. At that time too, the people were given an opportunity to make a choice. They could either survive the flood by joining Noah in his ark, or they could lose their lives in the waters. Quite surprisingly, not only did the people refuse to help Noah, they even laughed at him. And when the floodwaters rose they all perished because they were too preoccupied with the ordinary affairs of life. As Jesus tells us, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Although these things were not wrong in themselves, so caught up were the people in them that they were oblivious to the coming of the Flood, until it was too late. Not unlike the baboon in the documentary, when the time came to seize the opportunity to survive by entering the ark, the people instead allowed themselves to be seized by the waters and to be swept away.
All of which should help us to understand better what Jesus means when he tells us to stay awake! Clearly, he doesn’t mean that we should all stop going to bed at night. The baboon in the documentary and the people of Noah’s day did not get into trouble because they didn’t drink enough coffee. Their problem was their lack of awareness of their own deepest desires. The baboon let its craving for melon seeds frustrate its desire for freedom. The people of the Flood let their busyness with the affairs of daily living get in the way of their desire for survival. To stay awake, then, means to become more aware of what all of us really want in the depths of our hearts. It has something to do with realizing that, among our many desires, some are more important, more basic, than others. To wake from sleep is come to realize, for example, that freedom is more important than melon seeds, or, in the words of the Sermon on the Mount, that life is more than food and the body more than clothing (Matthew 6:25). Finally, to wake from sleep is to get in touch with that one deepest desire that we all have.
It is this same desire that St. Paul is talking about in the second reading, when he tells the Romans: it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. They must throw off the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ. They must make no provision for the desires of the flesh. Instead, they are to cultivate their desire for the Lord, allowing everything they think and say and do to flow from this deep yearning. And this is not an easy thing to do. It is not easy, for example, to stay in touch with our own deep desire for peace, when we are still feeling the hurt that someone else may have caused us. It is not easy to remember that we really want more out of life than money and power, when everyone else around us seems to care for little else. It is not easy to remain connected to our desire to show compassion for those in need, when we ourselves may be struggling to make ends meet. To do all this requires preparation. Which is why we need this season of Advent.
During this time, we make a special effort to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. Together, we carefully search our hearts to see if there are any desires that may be hindering us from choosing Christ above all other things in this world. Humbly, we examine ourselves, to see if there are any melon seeds to which we are clinging, and which may be hindering us from entering the peace of the Lord.
And even as we do all this, we realize our own weakness. We recognize that all of us -- myself included -- need God’s help to stay awake. Which is why, as you will recall, in our opening prayer just now, we prayed that our heavenly Father might increase our longing for Christ our Savior, that the dawn of his coming may find us rejoicing in his presence.
Sisters and brothers, when we look into our hearts and into our lives today, is there a baboon that needs awakening?