That’s right. Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year, a new liturgical year. But unlike January 1st, that other New Year’s Day, this New Year kind of creeps up on us, doesn’t it? Suddenly it’s Advent, and with Advent, everything changes.
Among the changes that come with the new liturgical year is the change to Mark’s Gospel. Last year was Matthew and next year will be Luke. But this year we’ll hear a lot from Mark. One thing about Mark: He doesn’t waste words. He moves through the Gospel story almost breathlessly, powered by a sense of urgency, constantly reminding us of the high stakes involved.
Mark tells the Gospel story without suspense. He tells us what it’s all about right from the beginning. Indeed, he opens his Gospel with the words, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” [Mk 1:1]
“The beginning,” Mark tells us, the beginning of Christ’s appearance in the world, a beginning that points back to another beginning, to a beginning of creation with God. From the first verse of Genesis – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” [Gen 1:1] – to the first verse of John’s Gospel – “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” [Jn 1:1]
Yes, the Word has an eternal beginning in God; and the Gospel has a beginning in time in the world. This, Mark tells us, is the beginning of the Gospel, the Good News the entire world longs to hear. In the Gospel we have the answer to humanity’s long-pondered question: Why are we here?
God answers through the words of His Son, Jesus the Christ, the Promised One. For that’s what He is, the Christ, the One promised down through the ages, the One promised to Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David…But Mark tells us this Jesus is more than that, more than the Messiah; He’s the Son of God Himself.
Yes, indeed, Mark doesn’t waste our time, but lets the cat out of the bag right from the very beginning: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” From there Mark moves inexorably toward Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection, toward the Cross and the journey Jesus makes along the way.
But Mark also focuses on another journey: the journey of the disciples as they move from cluelessness, to misunderstanding, to failure, betrayal, abandonment, denial, guilt, and finally to understanding, acceptance and obedience. Yes, you and I often find ourselves on that same journey. And it’s in the midst of this journey where we find ourselves in today’s Gospel passage from the 13th chapter of Mark.
It begins with a command: “Be watchful! Be alert!” [Mk 13:33] and ends with the same command: “Watch!” [Mk 13:37] Responding to His apostles, Jesus had just told them a little about the last days, the time of fulfillment when He will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. But no one – no man or woman, no angel, not even He, in His humanity, knows the day or the hour – only the Father [Mk 13:5-32].
Jesus then relates a parable in which the “when” is far less important than how we prepare for it. Listen again to His Word:
“It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”
That’s it – a one-line parable – but long enough to make his point. We are commanded to watch, to be ready…but not to wait in idleness. Each is to do his own work, the work of the disciple, the work that God asks of us.
And what is that work? Only moments before Jesus had told the disciples: “the Gospel must first be preached to all nations” [Mk 13:10] That’s our task as we wait: to proclaim the Good News, God’s presence among us, and to proclaim it to everyone. How much Gospel proclaiming have you and I done lately?
And while we do His work, we’re also to watch, because we won’t know when He’ll come again: “… whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping” [Mk 13:35-36]
Jesus actually gets specific here, doesn’t He? He uses the four night watches common in the ancient world: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and morning. It’s no coincidence that each of these times comes into play in the closing chapters of Mark’s gospel.
It’s evening when the apostles celebrate the Passover with the Lord -- watching, waiting. One of them, though, isn’t watchful, but leaves early that evening. He rejects Jesus’ gift to His Church at that first celebration of the Eucharist. He leaves to commit an act of betrayal.
Later, in the garden, as Jesus prays deep into the night, He invites His remaining disciples to watch and pray with Him. It must have been near midnight. But they, too, succumb to weakness and are unable to watch. Each time He returns from prayer Jesus finds them asleep. And it’s then that Judas returns at the head of a mob and completes his betrayal. Once again the disciples are unprepared. In fear and confusion, they all forsake Him and run away.
And the cockcrow…Who can forget the fateful cockcrow that marks the threefold denial of Peter? Peter, the leader, the one chosen by Jesus to be the rock on which He would build His Church, the one so full of empty promises and bluster…Yes, Peter the rock is, at this point, still Peter the weakling. For Peter could watch only from the shadows, and overcome by fear, would repeatedly deny His Lord.
And finally, the morning, very early on that first Easter morning, the Risen Lord appears to the disciples and is greeted with disbelief; for they are still caught off guard; they are still unprepared for the challenges of faith.
Yes, at first the disciples failed miserably at their halfhearted attempts to keep watch. But are you and I really any different? While we’re having the time of our lives, the actual time of our lives is slipping away, bringing us ever closer to that moment when we will stand face to face before our God.
You see, time is God’s domain, His gift. None of us can predict what tomorrow will bring, not even the next hour nor the next minute. Time is God’s possession alone. In time, God encounters us and we encounter God. Time holds the very presence of God. We need only open our eyes — our inner eyes — to find Him. God is always present, and there’s never a time when we’re without Him.
Brothers and sisters, let’s make this Advent a time of finding, a time when we celebrate God’s coming among us. In Advent we relive His first coming, His Incarnation as one of us, a coming that leads ultimately to the Resurrection, an event that profoundly changed both time and history…an event that erased the line separating earthly time and eternal time.
Because of Jesus’ coming and living among us, we who exist in time also exist in eternity. And so time doesn’t just pass away; no, our time is the stuff of which eternity is made, transforming us until we enter into the fullness of God’s presence. Advent is meant to awaken us again to this truth. In the midst of our busy lives, Advent calls us to slow down, to recognize God’s presence, His continuous comings among us.
Jesus’ words are so needed today: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” Yes, rushing from one thing to another, when and where do we find the time to welcome the Lord into our lives? This is to what Advent calls us to do — to watch, to be alert, to wait with God, growing into His habitual presence. It calls us to recognize God’s presence in all that we do. Our time should be less and less our possession and more and more God’s time, so that when He needs us, when He calls us, we shall be ready.
Advent calls us to use God’s gift of time wisely, to simply be: to be with God — to sit with God and to look at our lives through His eyes. When we allow God to be who He is within us, we can learn to know Him, not just know about Him. Learn from the experience of Mary who each day pondered who Jesus was, what He was about.
This Advent may we consciously choose to live as if God’s presence invades each of us, invades all men and women, invades all human experience, invades every part of God’s creation. When we jump out of bed in the morning (or perhaps crawl or groan out of bed) may we drink in God as we drink that first cup of coffee.
May we bring God with us into all we do each day.
May we truly live in God’s time, ever alert, ever watchful for His saving presence.
Come Lord Jesus!