The Advent Season comes in a bifocal way. It comes in a “soft” tone, as the Irish would put it, a time of prayer and reconnecting with all that is holy. A time of listening to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” sung by a favorite choir. A soft season of quiet devotion and deep communion with the Holy Spirit. But Advent has another side to it, one that is grounded in the gospels and St. Paul’s epistles. We heard its message just now in the Gospel Lesson. Jesus says to us, “Be watchful! Be Alert!” Everyone should be alert, watching for the coming of the Lord. Even gatekeepers should be watching with keen attention. They do not know when the Lord of the house is coming. The first words we hear in the Gospel Lesson are “Be watchful! Be alert!” And the last word is this: “Watch!” Not much softness here. Rather, a “Stand at attention” stance filled with vigilance and expectation.
Now our immediate response will be that we live in a world that does not specialize in a soft Advent joy nor in this watchfulness. In fact, this year, with wars raging and people divided against each other in the streets, softness is distinctly out of fashion. But watchfulness has been passé for a long time now. Our culture centers in the moment, in the all devouring present. It is up to us to make the most of it, to care for ourselves most in it, and to find all purpose in this moment. Put simply, our culture has no clue about watchfulness.
(The homilist is invited to choose just one of these examples for this opening move. Asking the listeners to hold two such examples together is a challenge, so the options may be all three or “pick one.”)
All you have to do is to enter the world of TikTok or some other social media platform. Everything is about “What is happening right now!” The most trivial acts are given total attention, as if they are the summit of human experience. “Look at me, doing X, Y, or Z!” “Here’s what I’m thinking: Everyone who thinks differently is in error!” “Look at what I’m doing on this day!”
Part of this “The Church of Now” is the temptation to settle down into a big bag of
consumers. Here is the closest you’ll get to being in a community. The commercials have been enticing us for weeks to join in the Holiday Spirit by purchasing, what? A new car “for the holidays.” Maybe go to new destination “for the holidays.” Or just to drink more of your favorite beverage “for the holidays.” Did you notice, though, that as opposed to the church’s observance of the Advent Season, there is not time that is awaited in particular. “The holidays” remain a mix of TV commercials’ actors gathering together in the name of some brand and the marketing folks’ appeal to purchase more than you can afford. “The holidays” are a generic, falsely constructed “season” of sentiment and desire. No watching or waiting here. Besides, “the holidays are here!”
We live in a world, too, that is addicted to celebrity. Here is the cast of characters in this “Church of Now!” We watch their entertainment, to be sure, and we also watch the reports of their lives, who they’re with now, where they are vacationing now, and what they are selling us now. (Ever notice how major league sports celebrities are always marched into commercials to sell us something? And, for the most part, how sad their performances usually are?) All this must work, though. Otherwise, we would not be so addicted to this celebrity culture. No watchfulness here. Mostly, the celeb has her or his fifteen minutes of fame and then the crowd is off adoring somebody else.
Pope Francis gave a warning about this at Advent last year. In his homily he spotted the biblical analogy to our own day: “People in the time of Noah ate and drank and ‘did not know until the flood came and swept them all away,’” Pope Francis said, quoting the day’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew. “They were absorbed in their own things and did not realize that the flood was about to come.
One thing that is clear about all of this—our world obsessively lives in an imagined perennial now. No practices of waiting and watching are to interfere with this “Church of Now.” On this First Sunday of Advent, even for those of us who do set aside time to watch, our Lord has a further word for us. We are among those who, even while watching, “Do not know when the time will come.” We are among those who live in watchful hope, but without the certainty of dates and times. It would be one thing if our watching was more like that kind where the outcome is certain and the digital clock counts down without fail. Like in eleven and a half
minutes the soufflé is done. But we enter this Advent with another of those bifocal perspectives.
On one hand we begin the countdown towards the Feast of the Nativity and the celebration of the Birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem of Judea. The choir is already rehearsing for that night. On the other hand, we arrive at this Advent with a call to watch and take heed, but with no certainty as to the hour. Like a man traveling aboard,” Jesus tells us, who “leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with this own work,” ordering the gatekeeper “to be on the watch.” Our Lord concludes this little scenario with this word, again: “Watch.” No time set and circled on the calendar. No digital timer counting down the seconds and minutes. Simply “Watch!” We do not know when the time will come. It is like those maternity room occurrences where the set time of delivery has past and still there is no sign of the child. When asked, again, the doctor gives a mild shrug of her shoulders and she responds, “We just don’t know when the time will come.” All we do know is that we are supposed to watch and take heed.
The owner of the house will return, but every attempt thus far to set the exact time of his return has been both messy and unsuccessful. Still, as Jesus cautions us, “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.” Not knowing when the time will come, we are not like those in the world. We join together, hear Christ’s life-giving Word and speak these words “When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord, until you come again.” There it is. “Until you come again.” We do not know when the time will come. We will keep proclaiming our hope until that Day.
Still, our Lord urges us to watch, to “Be Alert!” We are watchful for the coming of
Christ, and we begin to see grace in the wondrous ways in which the Lord comes. In certain eras and historical locations the Gospel Lesson for this First Sunday of Advent was the same as Palmarum, for Palm Sunday. (1) Entering the Season of Advent, the church heard the story of Jesus’ Entry into Jerusalem on “a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Matt. 21:1-11) St. Matthew tells us that the crowds spread their cloaks on the road ahead of Jesus and cut branches from the trees along the way. And they joined in the song of acclamation from Psalm 118: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
But notice what a multitude of comings of the Lord we acclaim this day. Here at the beginning of Advent, we begin to prepare ourselves and Christ’s church for the coming of Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, in Bethlehem of Judea. We sing, “Blessed is the one who comes,”…at Christmas. And, of course, as the Paschal Mystery began to unfold, Jesus does come into the Holy City, facing his Passion and Death, and we will once again sing “Blessed is he who comes,”… on Palm/Passion Sunday. On this day, in the midst of our offering and making Eucharist, we will sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Christ’s comes in our midst in his precious Body and Blood, and we give thanks. But on this First Sunday, our giving thanks also leans forward to anticipate the coming
of the Lord in glory at the end of the age. Then, all create will sing its “Hosannas” and every tongue proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” We are on our tiptoes of anticipation on this Advent Sunday. Jesus tells us to watch and be alert.
So we come to this day, not knowing when the time will come, but of these things we are confident. We will not sink like the world into a self-absorbed present. And we will not let the things of this world become fake substitutes for the glory of Jesus Christ and his kingdom. We will hold each other in prayer and care for each other with compassion. And we will be constant in the Breaking of Bread and in our prayers. The Lord comes and we rejoice.
(1) See: Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations (New
York: Crossroad, 1993), 13-16.