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Fr Robert Verrill suggests that Jesus’ command to Christians to be “watchful” offers Christians a loving way to respond to “Woke”

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 24:42-51, Thursday 21st Week in Ordinary Time), Jesus tells His disciples to watch. But the actual Greek word that St Matthew uses is from the verb grégoreó which can be translated as watchful or vigilant and is obviously the verb from where we get the name Gregory, so it’s a very appropriate name for someone with these qualities. But more literally, grégoreó means the verb “to be awake or wakeful”, and it is in a figurative sense that it has come to mean “to be watchful or vigilant”. But it’s easy to see how words can quickly take on figurative meanings, and often we can even forget what the literal meaning originally was.

For instance, take the word “woke”. Before 2017, most people would have thought the word “woke” meant the past tense of the verb to wake, so someone might say “I woke up at 6:30 this morning.” But if you were to ask someone today what the word woke means, they would very likely say something along the lines that it is an adjective used to describe someone who is particularly alert to some kind of social injustice such as transphobia or racism.

Now it is surely a good thing when people are alert to social injustices. However, things can become problematic when people’s understanding of social justice becomes distorted so that they end up committing acts of injustice themselves to address perceived injustices. So today, many of us are now frightened of not appearing woke enough in case we get ostracized, and we may be worried that if we don’t see the injustices in the way that we’re supposed to see them, then people are going to say that we’re blind or that we’re a bigot. 

Now woke ideology is rather reminiscent of a movement known as Gnosticism that dates from the late first century AD. Gnosticism is an ideology that human salvation belongs to people in virtue of possessing a hidden and intuitive knowledge of the mysteries of the universe. Gnostics were supposedly the “people who knew”, and their knowledge constituted them as a superior class of beings, whose present and future status was essentially different from that of those who, for whatever reason, did not know. And another feature of Gnosticism was its contempt for the physical world. Gnostics believed that the real identity of human beings was that of little sparks of divinity that had unfortunately become trapped in physical bodies.

Now it seems that in our own day, there is also a kind of contempt for physical reality. For instance, many young people who are confused about their gender identity hate something about their bodies. And the people who should be helping them through their difficulties are all too ready to tell them that what is wrong with them can be fixed by giving them hormones or surgery so that their bodies can be transformed into something they are a bit more comfortable with. And if anyone should question the wisdom of this approach, we’re told that if such measures are not taken then the gender confused person will very likely kill themselves. But again, this threat is another example of this Gnostic tendency, for people can have no greater hate for their bodies than to take their own lives.

But whether it’s being Gnostic or being woke, these ideologies are a distortion of what Jesus teaches us in today’s Gospel. Jesus calls us to be awake, but this is not because our salvation depends on what we know. Rather it depends on who we know. For if we know who Jesus is, then He will save us. Indeed, Jesus became incarnate and suffered and died for us, in order to heal our nature and bring His justice to the world.

Now in the case of so-called woke issues, people do genuinely face injustices. For instance, when people struggle to conform to the gender stereotypes expected of them, those around them can be very cruel. It’s no wonder that people can feel depressed and suicidal when they’ve suffered years of bullying, sniggering and snide remarks. Such behavior is indeed a grave injustice.

But the fundamental problem is not that a man is trapped in a woman’s body, or that a woman is trapped in a man’s body. The fundamental problem is that people have consistently treated a person in an unloving way.

But if we have a true knowledge of who Jesus is, we would be able to see Jesus in every person we meet, and we would be able to love them as we love Jesus. So this is the kind of watchfulness and vigilance we need so that we can see Jesus in every single person we encounter. For it is only then that we will be able to recognize the genuine social injustices around us and be capable of bringing Christ’s healing into our world.