“I know your works. You have the name of being alive, but you are dead.” (Revelation 3:1)
Today’s first matins reading presents what Jesus wants Saint John to write to the churches in Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. A pattern can be noticed in this grouping. The complaints the Lord levels against Sardis and Laodicea have to do with their comfort and complacency, while Philadelphia is praised for its social littleness and faithfulness under pressure.
The words quoted above are the beginning of Jesus’ arraignment of Sardis. These Christians seem to be thriving, but they are prettified zombies. If we think successful Christianity can be captured in Catholic Directory stats or chancery program metrics, then we’ve misunderstood everything about the revolution of the heart Jesus brings about in His Kingdom.
Or if we think that being alive is to “make it” in the world, we should hear Jesus’ voice in T. S. Eliot’s jeremiad on modern, secularized civilization in The Waste Land:
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
But Jesus does not judge the vacuity of our lives as an end in itself: He is the absolute champion of humanity, after all. He makes His case out of mercy, to make us youthful, exuberantly alive:
“Keep vigil and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works brought to fulfillment before my God. Remember, therefore, how you once received and heard; keep to that and convert.” (Revelation 3:2-3)
We should remember the plea of Jesus to Ephesus to return to the first love of seeing everything new in Jesus. By that living flame, failing things revive. What is the particular work that the Father has entrusted to each of us, which we have not yet brought to fulfillment because we have been distracted by something less than ultimate?
“If, therefore, you do not keep vigil, I will come as a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come upon you.” (Revelation 3:3)
A lover, in the full flush of love, keeps vigil for the beloved, even if that beloved is detained by some unfathomable agony. That is the stance of the authentic Christian, straining at any possible sign of the approach of the Lord. Christian subjectivity is structured by this in-love attentiveness to the God Who repeatedly and surprisingly advenes in Christ. By contrast, worldly or secularized subjectivity is essentially heedless of the visitations of divine love. To be of the world is to live within a closed horizon, to be one of the foolish virgins, not one of the wise. Secularization means being the strongmen of our own domains, for whom Jesus is always a thief.
To be despoiled of the whole world by the heavenly thief is to wake up to the infinite wealth of love.