Christianity first arrived in Japan in the 1500s, through St. Francis Xavier and other Jesuits who came with European explorers. They encountered some initial success, especially among Japanese peasants, thousands of whom were baptized. However, it was not long before the rulers reacted against Christianity, banning the religion and exiling the missionaries. Soon the country closed itself off to all outside contact, and Christians were ruthlessly martyred and exterminated.
But Christianity was not completely eliminated. When trade finally opened again hundreds of years later in the 1800s, small communities came forward looking for priests, and the Eucharist. For many generations, surviving Christians held on to their faith. They had no Eucharist, no priests, no bibles, no churches. They handed on orally the prayers and scripture learned from the missionaries, and baptized their children. They held on to the hope and promise that one day the missionaries, who first came across the ocean to bring the Good News of salvation, would return again. And one day they did.
Christ came to mankind, not merely across oceans, but across the divide of eternity itself, from heaven to earth. And he too, remained on earth only briefly, to bring the fullness of the Gospel, open the way of salvation, and begin the Christian life. He too was soon exiled and put to death, but before leaving, promised that he would return: “As you see me leave, so you will see me return” (cf. Acts 1:11).
In today’s Gospel, Jesus urges his followers to keep vigil and watch constantly for his return, expecting him any day and any hour, even midnight. That first generation of Christians lived fully expecting Jesus to return during their lifetime. But as they grew older and passed away, they entrusted that task to the next generation. What the nascent Japanese Church experienced for several generations, the Church as a whole has experienced for 2000 years. Each generation in its turn takes up the faith, faces trials, lives in constant vigil and expectation of the Lord’s return, and faithfully hands on this task to the next generations in due time.
Another beautiful example of this Advent zeal is found in a monastery high in the mountains between France and Italy. In the 1100s a saintly hermit named Bruno withdrew from the world with a small community of fellow monks to focus on one thing: preparing and looking for the Lord’s coming. These are the Carthusians. They live in silence, and seven times a day gather in their church high in the mountains to pray and keep vigil. One of these times is the midnight hour, when the monks rise from sleep and gather in the large church in the darkness, by the light of a single candle, to sing the psalms. In this way they fulfill the Lord’s command to “stay awake,” and wait for him even at midnight.
For nine hundred years these monks have kept daily vigil – hoping to be the ones awake and ready when Christ comes again. Below them wars and revolutions have passed again and again. The world keeps changing and passing away, but they remain.
Even though we here are not called to this ascetical vocation, we can learn much from these monks, above all the need for prayer and silence in our lives. The world with its distractions makes prayer difficult, and it is hard to keep our lives focused on expectation of the Lord when our heart is pulled by so many other things. Though few of us can follow the discipline of rising in the middle of the night each day, at least we can give greater attention to the way we pray our night prayers before going to bed.
Advent is a time for us to renew our prayer, and remember what is our hope. The preparation for Christmas is not simply to remember Christ’s coming 2000 years ago, but above all to look for his Second Coming with eagerness, ready to be among those awake at his arrival.