Word of the Day: WATCH

Word of the Day: WATCH

One of these days I will get around to reading a novel I’ve started and put down, by the literary scholar Helen White, called “A Watch in the Night.” It’s about the youth and the conversion of the post-Dantean poet Jacopone da Todi, best known for that mighty hymn that used to be chanted at Catholic funerals, the Dies Irae. She derived her title from the words of the Psalmist, speaking in the Hebrew poetic idiom of the transcendence of God: “For a thousand years in thy sight are as yesterday when it is past, or as a WATCH in the night.” I know of no such assertion applied in Greek or Roman literature to that randy politician, Zeus.

Jesus urges his disciples constantly to stay AWAKE, because the Son of Man will come like a thief in the night; and we remember his disappointment, gently expressed, when Peter and James and John, who were present with him on the mount of Transfiguration, could not stay AWAKE with him in prayer for an hour, but fell asleep in the garden after their meal, exhausted no doubt from the tense dangers of the last several days. The Greek verb for his command is GREGOREIN, and someone who is watchful is GREGORIOS, a word adopted by later Christians as a personal name: so Latin GREGORIUS > English GREGORY. We are apt to ignore things, because being WATCHFUL is too much trouble. The compline prayer, adapting the words of Saint Peter, tells us why we should not rest content with any apparent peace: “Brethren, be sober and WATCHFUL, for your adversary the devil, like a roaring lion, prowls about the earth seeking whom to devour.” But shrugging, turning aside, and pulling the blankets over our minds is easier. I know it’s easy for me to do, anyway.

Today is the VIGIL of Easter, a strange day in the Church’s calendar, a day of absent presence, of fruitful barrenness. No Mass has been said since Thursday evening. In this intermediate time, this day that is like a blank, Emmanuel is apparently not-with-us, yet by that very absence he has entered into the blank times of our lives, the time between hope that seems lost and life renewed. How much less powerful a sign it would have been to us wanderers in the desert, had Christ been raised up on the evening of the day when he died, and the disciples had only to turn to see him again … This is the day when the half-believer goes home and gets drunk; when the women are dazed and do not speak to their own children; when the difference between day and night is but a shading of gray and gray. But we, after the Resurrection, keep WATCH on this day, both in expectation of what will happen, and in commemoration of what has happened.

The word VIGIL comes from Latin: VIGILARE = to stay AWAKE, to be VIGILANT, to keep WATCH, as a sentry does. Its root is productive in Latin and in the Germanic languages: you cannot keep a good VIGIL unless you have VIGOR: and that VIGOR implies growth, as in VEGETATION. From the French we have those bugle calls that rouse you from sleep: REVEILLE. The Indo European root gives us Anglo Saxon WACAN, to WAKE, and the derivative WACJAN > WAECCAN > Modern English WATCH.

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