First Sunday of Advent

Jesus’ instruction in the gospel is clear. He didn’t say, “Wait.” This is solid, reliable assurance that Advent is not primarily about waiting. Rather, he said, “Watch.” It’s similar to the directive students get when conducting science experiments. “Watch.” But it appears he didn’t mean, “Be alert. You might miss something important.” Rather, he said, “Watch, because the lord of the house might come suddenly and find you sleeping.”[1] It’s important enough, you really don’t want to be caught sleeping.

A couple of concerns come to mind. The relationship between the lord of the house and his servants determines the quality of their keeping watch for their master’s return. If they sincerely regarded him with deep respect, even love, they would be more personally invested in their task. Keeping watch and staying awake would mean more. Even if they were motivated by fear, whether it was fear of punishment or fear of disappointing their lord or even fear of setting a bad precedent for their fellow servants, the act of keeping watch can still be something positive. But upon closer scrutiny, it might be all about appearances. If they felt their task was a tedious, boring exercise and a complete waste of their time, they could do it grudgingly, even resentfully. So on the surface, there would be no big difference between a sloppy job and a job well done.

It appears Jesus tells us to keep watch to avoid getting caught sleeping. But are the consequences truly so dire if the lord of the house comes suddenly and we are caught asleep on the job? Jesus doesn’t give us a more compelling reason, so we can’t better appreciate how much trouble we’d be in, and whether it’s even worth the risk letting our guard down while on the job.

Keeping watch for the sudden arrival of a loved one is different from keeping watch for some unknown random danger. It doesn’t even compare to waiting for your teenager or spouse to come home from a school trip, work, or a night out with friends, while you prepare your angry speech about their total lack of consideration keeping you up, worrying whether to call the police or trust everything is fine. And although there is a similar urgency to be attentive, it is an entirely different kind of attentiveness. We want to see our loved one and receive them with joy. It is an occasion of gladness and thanksgiving. We absolutely desire that reunion, and that our watching and waiting finally come to an end. The biggest fear lingering in the back of our minds is that we might miss that moment, and we are not the first to exhale with relief.

It also makes sense that Jesus tells us to keep careful watch after dark. “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” All these occasions Jesus mentions are typically when we would be asleep anyway. In those days, most people got up and went to bed with the sun. So it’s as if he was telling us not to even go to sleep at all. But why should it matter in the slightest if we doze off while someone else keeps watch, and they awaken us when the moment arrives? The important difference is that each of us has to keep watch for ourselves. The lord of the house arrives differently for us all.

The prophet Isaiah gives voice to Israel’s frustration that they keep missing these  very important moments. “Why do you let us wander, O Lord, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”[2] It’s like they blame God for their own waywardness. How could God allow them to stray from his side? God tells us to pay attention, but it looks like he’s the one not paying attention. Because if God paid closer attention, we wouldn’t be in this mess! This kind of sloppiness is totally unacceptable.

Not only was Israel ever so ridiculously blaming God, they even suggested how God might do things better and set things right, like some misguided teenager blaming mom for forgetting to get them up in the morning that they missed the bus. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.”[3] Basically, Israel was telling God to do a better job, and be a little less subtle. God should call more attention to himself and his truths, so Israel didn’t miss the signs. How inconsiderate of God, really! But St. Paul reminds us that “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus … [has] enriched you in every way … so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.” He puts responsibility back squarely on our shoulders. “How can we complain?,” he rebukes us. How is it God’s fault that we continue to not pay attention, and miss all the signs of his mercy and favor in the world?

As we begin the journey of Advent, we will still hear the usual warnings from well-meaning Christians against getting caught up in the turmoil of secular Christmas, with all the non-stop busy-work and running around, all the consumerism and materialism that fuels our free market economy, the competitiveness in our search for the latest gadgets and the putting on of false pretenses of merriment and good cheer, while we continue whining and gossiping and finger-pointing behind closed doors. The greatest obstacle to enjoying a grace-filled and transformative Advent is that we allow ourselves to get tangled in the relentless frenzy that is secular Christmas. It’s all self-imposed stress. And to top it off, there’s the familiar frenzy of daily life, taking care of family, pets, and the sick; staying patient and kind toward friends and colleagues at work or school; keeping in mind everyone else is just as stressed, maybe more; staying mindful of our fellow citizens devastated by recent natural disasters, those caught up in the opioid epidemic, the uncertain status of undocumented immigrants brought to our country as children, the many millions more losing health insurance coverage, to say nothing of rampant poverty, violence, and injustice everywhere else in the world, along with the looming threat of war. Watch, he says? I’m almost afraid to ask what for?

In his epic work “A Song of Ice and Fire” more popularly known as “A Game of Thrones,” author George R. R. Martin introduces his readers to a company of men called the Night’s Watch, dedicated to keeping watch for the dangers that threaten humanity from without. As they take up their service, they pledge their oath, “Night gathers, and now my watch begins. … I am the sword in the darkness. I am the watcher on the walls. I am the shield that guards the realms of men. I pledge my life and honor to the Night’s Watch for this night and all the nights to come.”[4]

We, too, are on watch duty, each one of us, but for God’s subtle, yet active presence and work in our lives and in the world. It is a reunion we absolutely and deeply desire. The frenzy that is daily life doesn’t stop. But we have to stay awake. So, watch!

Rolo B Castillo © 2017

[1] Mark 13: 35-36

[2] Isaiah 63: 17

[3] Isaiah 63: 19—64: 3