In the U.S., this weekend marks the kickoff of the “Holiday Season,” that time of the year when retailers work non-stop to convince us that there’s no time but this minute to rush out to the mall, there to “shop till you drop.” Santa’s been hanging around since Halloween (October 31st ), just counting down the days until his entrance ; as of today, he and the elves (not to mention the reindeer) will get no sleep as they pack up the sleigh with all kinds of goodies. If the merchants and their advertisers can be believed, that sleigh will be loaded not only with toys for children, but also with 52 inch flat screens for dad and brand new front-loading washers for mom. This is the pressured season : only 28 shopping days left – what are you waiting for ? Any delay could be disastrous. Get moving !
For some of us, however, today also marks the beginning of another season : Advent. While the “Holiday Season” coerces us onto a kind of rollercoaster ride to Christmas (that “holiday” that so frequently goes unnamed these days), we know that Advent prefers a different rhythm – something slower and quieter, with a person, not a washing machine, waiting at the end of the journey.
But before we think of Advent as a kind of leisurely passage toward Christmas, we’d better take a look at today’s gospel. Set in the days immediately before the Passion, it shows us a Jesus who has already entered Jerusalem, has already cleansed the Temple and foretold its destruction. Deeply aware that the prophets came to Jerusalem to die, Jesus now prepares for his own death in typical fashion by speaking urgently to his friends ; even as his own hour approaches, his thought is for them :
Watch, therefore ;
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.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all : ’Watch !’"
What are they to watch for ? Well, it’s right there : watch for the arrival of the Lord of the house, who’d better not find them sleeping. And that’s it. Chapter 13, often referred to as the “Little Apocalypse” of Mark, ends here on a note of threat and even of fear. It’s a far cry from Christmas – or even from “On Jordan’s Bank” or “O Come, Divine Messiah.”
Happily, however, Jesus wasn’t operating in a vacuum, and neither are we. The Lectionary offers us words of the Prophet Isaiah that may help us understand what Jesus leaves unsaid in those last few hours before he is betrayed, arrested, deserted and finally put to death.
Many of the prophets speak of the “Day of the Lord,” the day that would eventually come and change Israel’s life forever. It would be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it would be a day of liberation ; on the other, it would be a day of reckoning. Isaiah wanted to make sure that Israel realized the consequences of its sinful ways even as he begged the Lord to come down :
Would that you might meet us doing right,
that we were mindful of you in our ways !
Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful ;
all of us have become like unclean people,
all our good deeds are like polluted rags ;
we have all withered like leaves,
and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you ;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
This is Isaiah spelling out the faithlessness of Israel, its inability to “stay awake” to its covenant with the LORD. When The Day comes, it will go hard on the people who no longer call upon his name, no longer rouse themselves to cling to him. It’s easy to see the parallels to Jesus’ slightly more veiled words.
But Isaiah neither begins nor ends with harshness. The words we see above are sandwiched between a claim about the LORD :
You, LORD, are our father,
our redeemer you are named forever.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father ;
we are the clay and you the potter :
we are all the work of your hands.
These bookend-type verses make what’s known as an “inclusion,” and they’re meant to draw attention to what lies between them. So there’s no way we can ignore the sad story of Israel’s infidelity. But we can’t ignore these lines, either. They speak of the root of the relationship between Israel and the LORD, between children and father, between clay and potter. And before the indictment is fully brought in, Isaiah reminds the LORD and his people that
No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you
doing such deeds for those who wait for him.
Deeds of liberation, deeds of forgiveness and reconciliation, deeds of love – these unsaid parts to Jesus’ final exhortation to vigilance tell us to keep watch, yes, but keep watch because God loves you so much that he has, in fact, already returned to save you. Watch to see (and to live) what all of that means.
For the disciples as they went through that dreadful “Holy Week,” that meant seeing themselves tested and failing when they relied on their own strength, but it also meant the eventual joyous reunion and experience of pardon with the Risen Lord. For us, at the beginning of the Advent season, it might mean recognizing all over again how much we need a Redeemer, a Savior, a God who accepts to become as human as we are. It might remind us of our own need to watch and be ready – not out of fear, but out of longing for an experience of a God who will, in the words of that same Isaiah,
judge the poor with justice,
and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted.
This God who will come – “like a thief in the night,” as says Jesus elsewhere–
shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Jesus’ urgent speech can remind us to watch for the Day and for the Person to whom this whole Advent season will be pointing, to watch with longing for a time when
the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat ;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
together their young shall lie down ;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
In today’s gospel, Jesus the Lamb of God gets ready to give himself over to the lions and the wolves of this world in order to realize the Kingdom of God. In that Kingdom, there will be no more harm or hurt, “for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD, as water covers the sea.” Our joyful task this Advent season is to wait lovingly and longingly for the Child who will bring it about.
Sr Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester, United States.