Advent is a unique time in the liturgical calendar. It is a sacred time set aside for us to journey in faith with the Church as she prepares to celebrate the birth of Christ. In these weeks, as we look deeper into our hearts and into the heart of our faith, we may experience a mixture of conflicting emotions: joy and sorrow, hope and fear, thanksgiving and remorse, anticipation and dread. The readings on this first Sunday of Advent stir up many such thoughts and feelings.
The Gospel today gives us strong and somewhat alarming words from Jesus: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” We know that the Lord is coming, but we do not know “the time.” This can make us uncomfortable. We do not want to be caught off guard or unprepared for what we know is coming. We may even feel some anxiety about what we anticipate. On the other hand, we are also quite capable of putting things out of our minds. We know what will come, but we simply do not think about it. We get lulled into complacency, procrastination, or distraction. With his strong words, Jesus jars us out of our complacency by reminding us that he may come at any time, so we need to be constantly vigilant.
The Lord uses the example of a man who leaves his servants in charge while he travels abroad. He warns the gatekeeper to stay on the watch because he does not know the day and hour of his master’s return. To drive home his point, Jesus specifically mentions all four watches of the night. The Lord of the house may come in the evening, at midnight, at dawn (“cockcrow”) or in the morning. In other words, there is no time when we can lower our guard and accept not being ready for the Lord’s coming.
Some people may have the idea that since they do not know when Jesus is coming, there is no need to worry about it until it happens. Others may have the idea that they need to figure out when he will come so they can plan ahead for his arrival. What many people do not want to think about is that, regardless of the appointed time of Jesus’ return, there is also the appointed time of our own death, a time we cannot know. In either case, whether he comes to us in glory at the end of time or we are taken to him at the end of our own life, Jesus tells us that we must remain ever ready for the moment which will come to us all. He does not tell us the exact time because he wants us to keep watch at all times.
While we wait, we have work to do. Like the man who put his servants in charge of his house, Jesus puts us in charge of his house, which is both the Church and the world. We all have something to do in preparation for his return, as he has left “each with his own work.” Jesus makes it clear that his message is not only for the Apostles but for all of us: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
Despite this warning, there will always be those who will not watch, who will harden their hearts to the idea of needing to be ready for the Lord’s return. This is the spiritual condition Isaiah laments in the first reading: the people of God are no longer mindful of God. How pitiable we become when we cling to sin! In our arrogance we choose our own way to what we think will bring us life and happiness, but instead we end up “all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” When we are in this condition, we need the Lord more than ever! Isaiah expresses the longing of our withered hearts when he begs the Lord to “rend the heavens and come down.” Our psalm response echoes a similar cry: “Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved.”
St. Paul in the second reading reminds us that our readiness for the Lord is not something we accomplish but a gift of grace that we are to welcome. We do not need to fear the Lord’s coming, for, although we are sinners, we have been “enriched in every way.” Thus we can rejoice in anticipation of the Lord’s return. As Paul says with great confidence: “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” As we begin the holy season of Advent, we are not relying on our own human strength but on his divine strength. “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christ himself is the source of our hope and joy.
Do I rely upon my own strength or the strength of God? How can I become more mindful of the Lord in my daily life? In what ways do I fail to be vigilant?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 14, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.