by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad. He leaves home, placing his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he orders the man at the gate to watch out with a sharp eye. Look around you! You do not know when the master of the house is coming, whether at dusk, at midnight, when the cock crows or at early dawn. Do not let him come suddenly and catch you asleep”. Mark 13, 33-37

While I hesitate to talk in absolutes, I believe that near the top of the list of the most alert people are those who care for the very elderly and the mothers of new-born babies and young children. At the slightest indication of disturbance or unrest, these carers are wide-awake and on the ready to respond. It’s as though they have no concerns for their own needs and personal comfort. I want to suggest that that’s the kind of attentiveness and alertness that Jesus, in today’s gospel-reading, is urging all those who want to be his disciples to cultivate.

We’ve probably all heard variations of the story of children playing in the grounds of their parish primary school when, suddenly, their attention is caught by a figure dressed in unusual clothes, coming through the school gate. One of them suggests it is Jesus. So, they rush off to the school secretary’s office and announce that Jesus is coming across the school yard. The secretary peeps through the curtains, quickly agrees with the children and calls the Religious Education Co-ordinator out of her office. She, too, looks out the window and immediately gets on the phone and announces to the parish priest that Jesus is on his way to the school office. The parish priest rushes in through the back door of the office with his stole and car keys in his hand, tells everyone to look busy, and heads to the garage and his car to make a speedy get-away.
That story is a little like what we hear Jesus saying in today’s gospel reading: “Stay at you post, watching. You have no idea when the owner will be coming back, whether in the evening, at midnight, at cock-crow, or in the morning. You don’t want him showing up unannounced, with you asleep on the job.”

Being alert, awake and watchful is one of the key themes of this first Sunday of Advent.
Just under 50 years ago, Wes Seeliger, an Episcopalian priest published a book of reflections entitled One Inch from the Fence. In one of those reflections, he wrote:
“The waiting room at a hospital’s intensive care unit is unlike any other place in the world. And the people who wait there are bound together like no others anywhere. Family members and friends can’t do enough for each other. No one is proud, no one stands on ceremony or protocol. Petty disputes and hurts are nowhere to be found. The distinctions of race and class melt away. A person is father or spouse first; white, black, Asian second. The garbage man loves his wife as much as the university professor loves his – and everyone understands. Each person pulls for everyone else. A family’s good news gives joy and hope to everyone; the sadness and grief of a family’s loss is felt by everyone. In the intensive care waiting room, the world changes. Vanity and pretence vanish. The universe is focussed on the doctor’s next report. In that waiting room, we can’t help but face the fact that life is fragile and limited. In waiting for word of some improvement in our loved one’s condition, every moment of life becomes a gift. That waiting room is a place of hoping. It is a place of anticipating, of expecting. It is a place of Advent.”

Today’s readings remind us that our lives are rather like a waiting-room, where we are confronted with both the preciousness and the fragility of our own lives. We all know that our lives are also an experience of anticipating, expecting and hoping. Advent invites us to reflect on the importance of making the most of the present. – to be conscious of the importance of expressing our love and care and compassion and encouragement now. Not tomorrow or next week or next year. And now is the time to be present to God who is present to us in every moment of our lives, in every person we encounter and in every event of which each day is made. That’s something about which we have to repeatedly remind ourselves.

One of the things I have learned over the years about Scripture is that the writers seem to have chosen their words carefully. In today’s gospel-reading, Mark attributes to Jesus an exhortation to his disciples to be always attentive and alert, so that they are not caught out “when the master returns”. By way of example, he refers to some specific times, some of which are sleeping times for most people – “You have no idea when the owner will return, whether evening, midnight, cockcrow, or morning.” We are probably used to the fact that the writer of John’s Gospel often stated very precise times, identifying exactly when Jesus performed some of his miracles. That kind of precision is unusual in Mark’s Gospel. However, I suggest that the times quoted in today’s gospel-reading. – evening, midnight, cockcrow and morning. – are deliberately used by Mark to remind us that these were very significant times in the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Evening was the time of Jesus’ farewell meal with his disciples; midnight was the time when Jesus poured his heart out to God in prayer, while his close friends fell asleep; cockcrow was the time that marked Peter’s infidelity and denial; early morning marked the time of buck-passing by the religious leaders, who handed Jesus over to be tried by Pilate, and early morning was also the time, several days later, when the women visited Jesus’ tomb and found it empty. These were all times at which those closest to Jesus were given a profound insight into who he was, and the place he claimed in their lives. Similarly, there are times in our lives that have the potential for enriching and developing our relationship with Jesus, and what it means to walk in his footsteps. But we have to be alert and awake to those moments and possibilities.

There is one final point worthy of our reflection in today’s readings. In the first reading, we hear Isaiah reprimanding God for staying hidden away for far too long. He laments that God has stayed out of sight for so long that the people have forgotten who God is and, as a result, have forgotten what it means to live and walk in God’s ways: “Because you have hidden yourself, God, we have transgressed; now, there is no one who calls on your name; for a long time now, you’ve paid no attention to us. It’s like you never knew us” (Isaiah 64, 1-9).
Bob Dylan once wrote a song called Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door. It expresses the kind of frustration we’ve all felt at times, when our praying seems to have produced no results. We sometimes feel as though God is distant from us, that God is elusive. God has chosen all kinds of ways of coming into our lives. Once, in a stable on the edge of the tiny town of Bethlehem, in the person of the Christ child. But also, countless times every day in what happens around us and in the people we encounter. Even, somehow in our failures and betrayals. Advent calls us to be alert to these multiple visitations.