Today we begin a new liturgical year with the Season of Advent. Advent means “coming” and originally it referred just to the feast of Christmas. But over time the Season of Advent took on a double meaning. Today it refers both to the “first coming” of Jesus Christ in his birth at Christmas, and to his “second coming” at the end of time. Advent’s message is one of hope. This season encompasses our anticipation of that moment when the whole world, and history as we know it, will be complete. Light at last will overcome the darkness; death and disease will be no more.
It can be disconcerting to find on the Sundays of Advent that we encounter not only the hopeful signs of the birth of Jesus, but also the sober call to “keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” in preparation for Jesus’ second coming, a day of judgment at the end of time. We celebrate the light of Christ coming into the world, but it comes to a world that is often broken and dark.
“Keep alert, keep awake!” We are startled by Jesus’ words in our reading from Mark’s gospel. Three times Jesus says, “Keep alert, keep awake.” If there’s one thing we learn from reading scripture, when Jesus repeats a phrase three times or more, he is serious! Yes, it is also a Gospel writer’s way of focusing our attention on a message of importance.
In today’s gospel passage we have the conclusion of what is referred to as Mark’s “Little Apocalypse.” Upon leaving the temple for the last time before his passion and death, Jesus, seated on the Mount of Olives across from the temple, made the pronouncement that the temple will be destroyed. The first four disciples, Peter, James, John and Andrew, ask Jesus when this destruction will take place and what signs will announce the event?
Jesus’ words strike like a bolt of lightning with his description of the Second Advent, the second coming of the Son of Man, and the end of time. Using images reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets and the Revelation of John, Jesus says that when the end of time comes, it will be announced by signs no one can miss, with the Son of Man coming to gather his own.
Because of their faith, Mark’s community was enduring terrible suffering and these early followers of Jesus were anxious to see the end of it all with Jesus’ immediate return. They obviously were disappointed. They had to hold onto their faith despite the negative signs they were enduring – the persecution, ridicule and perhaps their own doubts.
Jesus tells the parable of the man who leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with work to do. The master may be leaving but his return is certain, though those given charge of his household don’t know when. When the master returns he expects to find his house in good order and his servants alert and vigilant. Everyone should keep awake and alert, ready at all times, for “we do not know when the master of the house will return.” To his disciples and to his followers for all time, Jesus says, “My second coming will come, but at a time known only by God, the Father.”
If Jesus simply wanted to warn Christians to be watchful, the emphasis of the parable would have been on the doorkeeper who would admit the master on his return. What’s the purpose of the other servants in the parable? All of the servants have their tasks and must be alert and vigilant. Jesus is telling us in this parable that each of us is accountable for our lives, responsible for our actions, both as individuals and as a community.
Watching and waiting is difficult for us. The challenge is, of course, that nearly two thousand years later, Christians have been waiting a long time, and many are no longer waiting. We can’t wait until the Friday after Thanksgiving to shop for deals, how do we expect people to keep waiting for thousands of years?
“What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake” (Mk 13:37). Do you hear today’s Gospel “wake-up” message as a call to greater accountability for the stewardship of your life? We are responsible for living out the promises of our baptismal identity and purpose, responsible for responding to God’s call to become the people God calls us to be. Our calling is to keep alert and remain faithful in carrying out Christ’s mission in the world, without trying to guess when Christ will return.
In Advent, we remember that God enters the world in unexpected and wonderful ways. We are called to be alert and attentive to the signs and promises of hope, without neglecting the troubles of this world. In Advent, we remember that God has a plan to bring all of creation to fulfillment. Advent gives us the opportunity to believe, to hope, to keep awake and alert, and to watch for Christ, who was, who is, and who is to come.
Resources: Vicki Black, 2004; Jude Siciliano, 2011; Synthesis, 2008, 2014, 2017; David Lose, 2017, 2020.