Lectionary: 2, Gospel Mark 13: 33-37
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of the Church, yet the gospel today speaks of the coming of the Lord in judgment at the end of time. If we think about it for a moment we realize that the hope-filled expectation we show during Advent and the waiting that Jesus commands in the gospel both stand in anticipation of the same event: the coming of the Messiah.
Each year of course we look ahead with joy and longing to the celebration of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day, and throughout our lives we await, if in a less formal though more tremulous way, his definitive coming in glory and in judgment. This latter expectation is reflected in a solemn doctrine of our Catholic faith, recorded in the creed we pray at mass each Sunday: “…He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
These two periods of expectant waiting highlight the importance of such watchfulness in the life of Israel, and in the life of the Church throughout the ages as well as at the present time.
As noted in the first reading Isaiah the prophet expected the coming of the Lord in power, leading Israel to victory over her foes: “Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage!…Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (Isa 63:17, 19). What we behold on Christmas Day, however, is the coming of the Lord not in conquering power, but in powerlessness, in the humble crèche in Bethlehem. Then again, maybe it wasn’t powerlessness as much as power expressed in a very different way—through mercy and redemption.
After all, this is what Jesus taught his disciples throughout the course of his ministry, in which he was focused so clearly on proclaiming the coming and the presence of the Kingdom of God—that realm in which blessedness is measured not by worldly standards of dominion but by true justice and by the teachings of the beatitudes: a Kingdom where as St. Paul would later say: “power is made perfect in weakness…” (2 Cor 12:9).
The Kingdom of God which we await will indeed be characterized by justice, which can be fearsome at times, yet the Lord’s return in glory will also be marked by mercy and gracious kindness to us, his people, in spite of our frequent infidelities. Already from the beginning of his life in the flesh Jesus is thus teaching us about the Kingdom, even though it will only come in its fullness at the end of time.
Our watchfulness therefore needs to be carefully attuned to the hallmarks of the Kingdom, and we need to call ourselves to task continually in order that we may pursue these same virtues and qualities in accordance with the urgent command of Jesus himself in the gospel.
As we begin a new year of faith this Advent, we are surrounded by many causes for both hope and concern in our world. Amidst all of this let us rest assured that we will be prepared as people of hope, justice, and mercy for the coming of the Messiah—for his birth in Bethlehem, for his final coming in judgment, and for all those moments when he may appear in the course of our lives—if only we are faithful to the words of the Lord which he speaks to us in the liturgy today: “What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!” (Mark 13:37).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.