“BE WATCHFUL, BE ALERT! FOR YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE TIME WILL COME.”
Today is the First Sunday of Advent and it marks the beginning of a new Liturgical Year. This is actually Year B of St. Mark. We do not begin at the beginning of St. Mark’s Gospel, however – that will come next week. The opening Gospel passage of this Sunday is taken from near the end of the Gospel – just before St. Mark begins the account of Jesus’ passion.
In the literal sense, the word ‘advent’ means ‘coming of someone,’ and we wait for the coming of someone we love, but in the Christian liturgical sense it specifically implies to ‘the coming of Christ.’ and we eagerly and watchfully wait for the coming of Christ.
Now, considering ‘the coming of Christ’, we find that it is a mystery, for Christ has already come in the past about 2000 years ago, Christ still comes today in the sacraments – very specifically through the Eucharist, and Christ will come in future at the end of the world. Thus in a general sense, the Advent Liturgy, simultaneously evokes the past of salvation history, while promising its eschatological fulfillment in the future and rendering both past and future present in the today of salvation. Obviously, it is not surprising that we begin the new Liturgical Year this Sunday, with the same theme of ‘the coming of Christ’, where we ended it last Sunday.
Specifically speaking, we have about four weeks of Advent and the four Sundays of Advent are supposed to primarily prepare us for the celebration of Christmas, but they have an even more important preparation in mind viz. the readiness of each one of us for the second & final coming of Christ at the end of the world; and this we do by means of our constant & active involvement through properly welcoming Christ, and receiving him in our hearts who comes to us today in the sacraments.
Today’s Scripture Readings assure us that the Lord is coming. But every person has to be alert and must be on watch. The First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah brings us face to face with a God who is Father and with the reality of our own sinfulness before Him. The Prophet Isaiah makes a prayer of yearning asking God to come and save us from sin. St. Paul in the Second Reading from his 1st Letter to the Corinthians stresses on the fidelity asking people to remain faithful to Jesus to the end. The Gospel Reading from St. Mark, invites all to a spiritual vigilance. We are told to be always watchful and ever alert so that the coming of the Lord does not find us unprepared, for no one knows the day or hour of his coming.
“O LORD, YOU ARE OUR FATHER; WE ARE THE CLAY AND YOU THE POTTER!”
The First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah shines in the grace of God. The passage opens and closes by addressing God as our Father recalling the Exodus episode where God called Israel His first born. The Reading enriches the Advent liturgy with a somber mood of repentance. While this season of expectation is filled with joy, the preparation for the Lord’s coming necessarily calls for repentance.
Now, Isaiah is the Advent prophet – not least because he lived at a time of great longing for the coming of the Messiah and the restoration of God’s People. The people have begun to recognize that their Exile was a consequence of their failure to live with integrity and in the ways of the Lord. Their selfishness had shriveled them up like fallen leaves – their sin like the autumn wind scattering them. Now the longing is for a Messiah to come and gather His people and to bring them home. The words flow with passion and yearning. The Prophet Isaiah faces up to the wrongs that have been committed. He acknowledges Israel’s sinfulness and their need for ‘the potter’s hand’ to refashion them into a faithful people they were meant to be. He uses the imagery of the potter and the clay, a significant reminder that we are in the hands of a God who loves us, who took the clay of the earth, breathed life into us and shaped us. Being in the hands of the potter simply means to admit humbly that we are willing to place ourselves in the hands of God and let ourselves be led through what may sometimes be the painful process of being molded. The potter sees what the clay can become; the clay allows the potter to shape it to that end.
CALLED TO FELLOWSHIP WITH JESUS
The Advent message in the Second Reading from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Corinthians is very encouraging and optimistic. It fills them (and us) with hope as they (and we) wait in eager expectation for the ultimate revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Corinthians fully expected Jesus to return at any time – a belief they shared with all early Christians. Although they were already experiencing prejudice and persecution, they were strengthened by their conviction that it would not be long before Christ returned in glory and took them to their heavenly reward. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the grace of God flows abundantly towards those who walk their living faith in Jesus Christ. Those who walk their living faith, they are enriched in Jesus Christ, in speech and knowledge of every kind, not lacking in any spiritual gifts for the betterment of the Church. In union with Christ, the faithful are strengthened to the end of their worldly lives so that they will be blameless before God the Father on ‘the day of the Lord.’
“BE WATCHFUL, BE ALERT! YOU DO NOT KNOW WHEN THE TIME WILL COME.”
Today’s Gospel Reading from St. Mark begins with a somber warning from Jesus to his disciples, which sets the theme for the season of Advent, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” And Jesus takes ‘watching’ very seriously. In the very short Gospel passage of today, Jesus says four times ‘to watch’ – he is really hammering it home.
In this Gospel passage, Jesus illustrates the mystery of his future, his final coming in power & glory with a simple parable. Jesus while responding to his disciples did not get specific about time but his central teaching is that he will return in glory to usher in the end of the world. However, his summon is not filled with urgent anxiety. There is no call to fanatical behavior of any kind. If anything, Jesus encourages a calm seriousness placed within the context of realism. The fact is that only God knows when the final coming of Jesus will be and on the part of human persons it is necessary to be constantly vigilant. Whatever the signs or events human persons may say that they are pointing to the final end, they are mere speculations. The issue here is not when the Lord will come but to be prepared for his coming at all times.
Now, in the parable Jesus compares his final coming to a man traveling abroad who had placed his servants in charge of his house. The servants must do the work assigned to them, and the gatekeeper must be on constant watch awaiting the return of the master of the house. This, in a way, covers the two parables found in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘the parable of the talents’, when the servants were told to make productive use of what they had been given by their master, and ‘the parable of the ten virgins’, who had to be fully prepared and remain in readiness for the coming of the bridegroom.
Again, in Mark’s Gospel it is not the master (in Matthew’ Gospel) nor the servants (in Luke’s Gospel) who are charged with watching, but the gatekeeper (in John’s Gospel), whose task it is to open only to the shepherd of the flock while turning away thieves and brigands. The gatekeeper is first of all St. Peter and his successor, and with him every pastor. Ultimately, however, each individual must be the gatekeeper of his own soul: At the end of the parable Jesus instructs all his disciples to be constantly on the watch, “What I say to you, I say to all: Watch!”
Moreover, Marks’ Gospel could be described as the bluntest of the Gospels! He makes his point in straightforward language – “Be watchful! Be alert!” – “Watch, therefore, you do not know when the lord of the house is coming” – “May he not find you sleeping.” This is not a Gospel offering tranquil and comfortable living. This is a Gospel that is urgent – challenging those who admire Jesus and who are impressed by what he says and it does to take the extra step – into his footsteps and to follow the way of discipleship.
Today’s Gospel is speaking on the level of the future and present comings of Jesus. The key words placed before us are – “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” When Jesus warns us to not be asleep when he returns in his glory, this does not mean that we can never sleep… What is being referred to here is a sleep of the soul: we must avoid falling asleep spiritually. First, we must be careful not to fall into one grave sin or another, which would cause us to die spiritually, and thus to sleep with the sleep of spiritual death. Then, we must take care not to doze off: we must keep our soul in spiritual joy and chase away the deathly sadness of desolation. Focusing on readiness, living in the presence of the Lord at every moment of our lives, is the legacy of Jesus Christ to his followers.
“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” is the alarm sounding on the First Sunday of Advent. It means many different things, the most important of which is to seize the opportunities of the present moment, prepare for Christmas, prepare for death, yes, surely. But also, and more important, prepare for the Kingdom of God whenever it explodes into our lives. And, these are the words of someone who loves us, not of someone who is threatening us, but inviting us to happiness. We await the birth of Christ our Savior. He came to save us by showing us the way to happiness, to the God who loves us. We have nothing to fear from his words; they are words of hope, of promise, of dreams to be fulfilled, just like the true spirit of Christmas.
A bunch of navy men were returning from a long voyage in the seas and as the boat approached shore, the men were all looking for their wives and girlfriends on the shore … eager to see them again! As the men looked over the crowd of women lined up, the air of excitement and expectancy grew. One man however was all alone as all the other men found their wives and girlfriends and they all embraced … his wife wasn’t there! Worried, he hurried home and found a light on in his house. As he entered he was relieved to see his wife, she quickly turned and said, “HONEY, I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU!” His response showed his disappointment however, ‘The other men’s wives and girlfriends were watching for them!’ The difference between waiting and watching was only too clear!
The Gospel Reading of today teaches us that we are to be ‘watching’ for the return of Jesus, not just ‘waiting’ for it. Those who watch for it will keep themselves alert and self-controlled; those simply waiting may slip into sloppy business with other things and let their priorities slip! Are we just killing time ‘waiting’ for Jesus to return, or are we really making time productive while ‘prayerfully watching’ for his return? We are to understand the days in which we live. We have to be a sentry! We are to be on guard duty. We have to be alert at all times. We have to be watchful. So over these four weeks of Advent, let us watch with the Church for the Lord, that we may be better prepared to receive the Lord when he comes at Christmas, or indeed whenever he comes. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.