Watch and Wait

The First Sunday of Advent. Is 63:16-17,19;64:2-7; Ps 80:2-3,15-16,18-19; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37

The readings for the First Sunday of Advent this year emphasize the themes of watching and waiting. In today's Gospel, Jesus tells us four times to be watchful, because we do not know when the time will come, the time when all our moral choices are over and we shall face the judgment of God. In today's second reading, St. Paul writes to people who are waiting for the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, praying that God will keep them faithful until the end. Today's first reading speaks of a great promise to those who wait, “No ear has ever heard, no eye has seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for Him. Would that you might meet us doing right.” In all these passages, the themes being emphasized are those of standing firm, watching and waiting for the Lord.

But what does ‘to watch’ or ‘to keep watch’ mean? ‘To watch’ is a stronger term than merely  ‘to look’ or  ‘to view’, because watching implies that one sees with an active mind - not only looking but also being alert, understanding what is seen, perhaps connecting what one sees with other ideas and past experience. To grasp what is meant by seeing with an active mind, it might be helpful to consider its opposite, namely seeing with a passive or inactive mind. It is possible to shut off the mind, to absorb sensations and images without thinking about them. Indeed, the goal of much of the media and modern advertising is to encourage us to shut down our minds, so that we respond hypnotically to messages that influence our behavior. Certain kinds of drugs or eastern mystical practices, such Raja Yoga, also aim at putting the mind into a state of indifference and disengagement. Such practices encourage a state of seeing without thinking, a kind of stupor or darkness of the mind, the precise opposite of what Jesus wants us to do when he urges us to be watchful and alert.

So why, then, does Jesus urge us to be watchful, to experience life with an active mind, if we do not or cannot know when the day of the Lord will come? Part of the answer is that life is dangerous, spiritually as well as physically. The tradition task of a watchman is to watch for enemies that threaten a city, and part of the task of a watchful mind is to be alert for threats to our salvation. There may, for example, be circumstances that might encourage us to sin, such as bad company. Perhaps we need to avoid seeing or hearing certain things that would leave a stain on our minds. Perhaps we need simply to be alert to carry out our daily spiritual disciplines, most especially prayer. Saint Peter tells us that we should be calm in our Christian lives, but also vigilant (1 Pet 5:8).

Another answer may be that although we do not know exactly when Christ will come, or our lives will end, the time of the end may be prefigured by certain signs. A watchman may not know when a king will arrive, but the time immediately preceding his coming may be heralded with certain signs that those who are alert can see. The people in Jesus' time had a sense of expectancy that the coming of the Christ was imminent. Those familiar with those who are dying know that some people, at least, know that they are going to die and make due spiritual preparations. Perhaps also the second coming of Christ will be heralded by certain signs that those who are alert may be able to see. May God give us the grace to stay alert, so that we are doing what is right when He comes.

Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 30th November 2008

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