BE WATCHFUL, BE ON GUARD! BE ALERT!
Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:33-37
Today is the First Sunday of Advent. This begins Cycle B of the liturgical calendar. The dominant gospel of this liturgical year will be Mark’s. Today’s readings dwell on the theme of watchfulness, which centres on the Second Coming of Jesus. After the ascension of our Lord Jesus into heaven, while his disciples were still gazing into the sky, they were told by the angel: “O men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus who had been taken up into heaven will come in the same way” (Acts 1:10-11). It is this Christ that we are waiting for in advent. The advent season is filled with expectation and getting ready for Christmas. Christmas decorations are already being marketed; and they are erected in certain areas of our cities. Christmas carols are already blaring in some shops and public squares. Christmas business is also beginning to boom.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus narrates a short parable about a householder who had a number of servants. On one occasion, he had to go abroad, meanwhile the servants would have the place to themselves. Before leaving he called them together and gave each of them a job to do. He urged them to be responsible, to do their various jobs and not to fall asleep. He singled out the doorkeeper for a special warning. “When I return I want to find you awake,” the Master said. This is not surprising since the doorkeeper would have control over all those entering and leaving the house. Perhaps the greatest danger facing him is not so much that he may fall asleep on the job, but that he may grow so accustomed to it that it will become just a job and nothing more. Christ’s story ends with this warning ringing in our ears: “staying awake” and being on our “guard”. It calls for perpetual vigilance (Mk 13:33-37). From Jesus’ words, we can deduce the following keynotes:
1. THE END IS INEVITABLE!
The end of the world is a certainty which is not consequent on whether or not we acknowledge it. The inevitability of the end of the world, the Day of the Lord, is attested to by Christ’s own words in today’s Gospel, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33) Luke puts it thus: “For it (the Day of the Lord) will come upon all people everywhere on earth.” (Lk 21:35). There will be no exception to this rule.
2. THE APPROACHING END IMPOSES A CONSEQUENT CODE OF CONDUCT UPON EVERYONE!
The point here is that the end of the world is a certainty, non-disputable. However, the fate of each individual at the end is dependent on his or her choices, here and now. In today’s Gospel, Jesus identifies an area where one can easily be caught in: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.” The evangelist, Luke, on the other hand, identifies three principal areas of distractions and temptations which can keep one too busy in the wrong endeavour, and so miss out on that which really matters. Christ says: “Be careful not to let yourselves become occupied with too much feasting and drinking and with worries of this life.” (Lk 21:34). In other translations, this sort of behaviour is summed up in the word, DEBAUCHERY, that is, reckless and unrestrained living, in which the appetite and the passions are fully indulged. Inordinate indulgence in food, drink, and the passions can be serious stumbling blocks along the path of sanctity.
3. “WHAT I SAY TO YOU, I SAY TO ALL: ‘WATCH!’”
Jesus wants his followers to be alert always. They are not to lose their guard at any given time. This state of alert is announced by all the Synoptic Gospels:
“Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come” (Mk 13:33)
“Stay awake and pray always.” (Lk 21:5-36)
Matthew puts it thus: “So stay awake, because you do not know the day your master is coming.” (Mtt 24:42).
These texts want us to understand that life is not a game of ‘hide-and-seek’. Jesus understood human nature; and he calls our attention to the fact that a perceived lack of accountability generally leads to a greater recklessness in the actions of human beings. Think about the recklessness of students in a classroom when the teacher leaves the room. Think about how employees tend to leave early and cut corners when the owner of the business happens not to be around or has gone on vacation. Think about workers in an establishment: if they know that the one with authority is going to make rounds of inspection at a certain time all the employees will look hard-working and meticulous at that particular time. However, if the owner has the habit of making random and unannounced appearances these same employees will have a greater incentive to be productive all times. People are less diligent when they believe they can disobey (commit sin) without consequences. Jesus warns us that he will return at a time when people do not expect. No one will be able to plead that he/she has been unfairly treated because the truth will be obvious.
4. DO NOT LEAVE THE THINGS OF ‘TODAY’ FOR ‘TOMORROW’!
(Here is a short story to illustrate this point in the gospel of today) Once upon a time, student-devils were being dispatched to the earth to do practical work before finishing their training and earning a certificate. Before taking off, Satan, the Grand Master, interviewed them. To the first: “How will you operate?” Said he in response: “I will instruct people God does not exist.” The Devil shook his head: “Most people already know that God, our Enemy, exists.” The next said: “I will argue that Hell does not exist.” Satan was annoyed: “After millions of heinous crimes committed on earth, people know that Hell exists.” The last said: “I will tell all of them that they have plenty of time.” Satan beamed: “Good fellow. Do that and you’ll bring people down here by the billions! Why can’t these other devils be as clever like you?” (C.S. Lewis)
Most of us delight in telling ourselves that we have time to set the record straight with God. Many people believe that they can make their Confession on their death-bed, like the “Good Thief” on the cross, alongside Jesus. Yet, one of the things that would make God laugh is hearing about our endless PLANS FOR TOMORROW. The most dangerous words in any language is the word “tomorrow” (Procrastination). In a sense, if we put off reconciliation with God, then we have bought the advice of the third apprentice devil. No! There is no time to put of things off until “Next Time!” Christmas is only four weeks away; but some people might not see it. How presumptuous we can often be!
5. BE “AWAKE-CHRISTIANS”, NOT “SLEEPING-CHRISTIANS”!
The gospel of today presents us with two possible situations of the Christian: We have the “AWAKE-CHRISTIANS” (“be on guard”; “be alert”; “be on the watch”; and “watch”) and the “SLEEPING-CHRISTIANS” (“May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping”). This situation recalls the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew 25: A) Of the ten virgins; where we have the five “absent virgins” who could not keep watch to receive the groom because they went away in search of oil for their lamps. They were unprepared (Cf. Mtt 25:1-13). B) It is also a repudiation of the SLEEPING disciple in the parable of the talents, where the dormant one took the easy way out and buried the talent (Cf. Mtt 25:14-30). C) And of course, today’s gospel also mirrors the judgment segment of Matthew 25:31-46, where those who were awake were those who visited the sick and the imprisoned, fed the hungry, etc., because a sleeping person does not make visitations (unless in astral journeys, which have no relevance to the present discourse).
The words of Christ – that we should stay awake – do not demand that we should, physically speaking, have sleepless nights. No! These words, rather call for a ‘spiritual insomnia,’ in the practice of good and virtue. Stay spiritually awake! Of what use is it to run life’s journey so full and long, to its end, only to discover that we spent time running outside the line and in the opposite direction? STAY AWAKE! Be alert! Be watchful! (Shine your eye!) Be fully aware of what is going on around you! Do not be day-dreaming!
6. STAY AWAKE IN PRAYER!
In the Gospel of today and in the parallel text of today’s gospel, as found in Luke’s gospel, Christ is very explicit as far as the reason for being awake is concerned. The reason is PRAYER. “Be on watch and PRAY ALWAYS that you will have the strength to go safely through those things that will happen and to stand before the son of Man” (LK 21:35). Prayer is that which keeps us in constant communion with God. It is an indispensable requirement if we are to persevere through all the difficulties and challenges of daily life, as we look forward to Christ’s return. Jesus’ insistence is not so much on just praying, but on ‘PRAYING ALWAYS.’ We pray always, when every word, thought and action of ours flow from the desire to please God.
Like a bride prepares for her long-awaited wedding day by making herself as beautiful as possible, may we also, anticipate the soon-return of Christ! In this sense, we should be making ourselves more spiritually beautiful, daily, by labouring to remove sin and prayerfully seeking the spiritual graces of faith, hope, and love (1 Cor. 13:13); righteousness, peace, and joy (Rom. 14:17), virtues that make our hearts lovely before the Lord.
I wish you, all, a prayerful and fruitful ADVENT!