This Advent, don’t just be spiritual. Be religious.

A Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16 1 Thessalonians 3:12 -4: 2 Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Imagine the future. It is what we do as humans. If you are raising children, you have surely thought of who they will be when they grow up. And if you are a young person, you have pictured this for yourself. Even we seniors imagine the future. It just does not stretch so far. This year’s holidays might be enough. All of us imagine a desired future, even when our prospects fail to warrant it.

Being attentive. Waiting. That is what our Gospel means by being vigilant. That is more than simply expecting the future to turn up. It is clearing a space within us for what is coming, much as one does when one is assigned sentry duty. You may not look as though you are doing much, but you are not dozing, not drifting. You are being attentive. You are waiting, ready to respond.

Religion is what happens with spirituality moves from speculation and desire into participation and commitment. 

We tend to think of Sunday Eucharist as something that links us to the ancient past, to the meal Christ celebrated the night before he died. That is certainly true, but it also links us to the future, to the meal—for lack of a better word—that we hope one day to celebrate with Christ and with his saints. Being at Sunday Eucharist every week is the sentinel duty that we have been given by the Lord himself: “Do this in memory of me.” Each Sunday, we are where he told us to stand. Alert and vigilant.

There is a great gulf between the popular faith, which many fashion for themselves these days, and the one that our Lord gave to us. In popular faith, we speak of ourselves as being “spiritual.” We believe in something beyond the self and its preoccupations. Something is out there, far into the future. But notice that “being spiritual” leaves all the options in our own hands. We admit that we long for something more than ourselves and this world, but we are far from changing anything about ourselves to make our lives ready for this reality.

The faith our Lord left us is religious in the deepest sense of the word. “Religion” comes from the Latin word religio, meaning “I bind.” Religion is what happens when spirituality moves from speculation and desire into participation and commitment.

Religion is essential to the spiritual life because our spirits grow and expand outward toward something beyond themselves when we and others make demands upon them.

What does one gain by being not just spiritual but religious? Why is it an improvement, seeing as it comes with all sorts of expectations? Isn’t everyone longing for a better future? Why not keep Sunday for us, our enjoyment? Whatever is coming will come, will it not?

The first thing one gains in religion is a community. We are not alone. What we believe is more than something we have fashioned for ourselves. And we do not just pine and pray. We do this together. Sunday Eucharist is sentinel duty. It is where we gather to encourage one another, to help each other to stay awake, to be attentive.

As I drive in the country, between parishes, I see massive flocks of birds. Often, they imbricate in V-formations. Sometimes they appear as dark, swelling and swirling, winged clouds. And then I see a lonely bird or two on a raised line, and I wonder: Will they survive, apart from the flock?

Brothers and sisters:
May the Lord make you increase and abound in love
for one another and for all,
just as we have for you,
so as to strengthen your hearts,
to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father
at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his holy ones. Amen (1 Thes 3:12-13).

Religion is essential to the spiritual life because our spirits grow and expand outward toward something beyond themselves when they are exercised, when we and others make demands upon them. You cannot ignore your children and simply hope that they have a wonderful future. No one comes to possess the longed-for future without actively striving, without being attentive.

Advent reminds all of us: We are sentinels. Not by choice. By commission.