Brief Synopsis of the Readings: We begin our new liturgical year with the prophet Isaiah. He writes after they returned from exile. Addressing God, Isaiah praises God but also asks why God abandoned them during their exile. Isaiah then recounts God’s faithfulness and acknowledges that God is “our Father; we are the clay, you the potter, we are all the work of your hand.” In Mark’s Gospel Jesus warns his followers to be on guard and stay awake. He likens their experience to servants whose master goes on a trip and leaves them in charge. They don’t know when he will return but are warned to be awake when he does.
Every time I read today’s Gospel I wonder how the servants spent their time when their master traveled. I remember (with a mixture of nostalgia and embarrassment) when I was 5th grader and our teacher needed to step out of the classroom for a few minutes. It was only a few minutes but we created bedlam and whatever hope she had of our maturity was betrayed. We relied on the belief that we would have enough warning of her return to pretend that we had never left our desks. We were wrong. And it cost us: she cancelled the class party on the day before Easter vacation.
I confess that as a 5th grader I did not posses the wisdom to suggest that we would be better off by not creating bedlam in the first place. It was a battle of sorts: we battled to get away with bad behavior and (frankly) she battled to catch our misbehavior. But it would have been best to not have battled at all. Had we stayed in our desks and kept quiet it wouldn’t have mattered when she returned and all the tension would have been gone. It would have been a win all around.
And I think that’s where we all go with today’s Gospel. Much like the reading earlier about the wise and foolish virgins, the command to “stay awake” calls us to live our best lives, even when nobody is looking.
But the choice of this Gospel for this First Sunday of Advent puzzles many of us. Advent begins the season when we await not judgement but new birth and renewal. The upcoming birth of Jesus calls us to rejoice, not to hurry up and get things in order before he arrives. Our faith informs us that Jesus took on human form because we needed him to, because our existence was incomplete without him becoming fully God and fully human.
And yet, during this season of Advent I appear to see battles all around. I don’t want this to be another “we’ve turned Christmas into a commercial nightmare” and I certainly don’t want to add my voice to the chorus of Fox News’ belief that our world has declared a “war on Christmas.” Instead I wish to talk about how difficult it can be to simply wait for something.
I read a great deal and I find no way to avoid reading a great deal of advertising. Recently I saw a headline promising strategies on how to “win” the battle of Black Friday. As we all know the Friday after the American commemoration of Thanksgiving claims a critical place in the world of retail sales. In the hopes of being “in the black” (ie, seeing a profit) for the year, retailers cut prices and open early to attract shoppers. The competition between retailers (who want to make money) and consumers (who want cheap stuff) has become a battlefield.
That’s right: Advent is no time for wimps. We must fight on and win. We can’t afford to wait. And yet….
Perhaps we can. Maybe, just maybe, Advent calls us to look anew at waiting. We normally think of waiting as either a waste of time or a time to endure. Instead what if it’s a time to sit the joy of what we anticipate? As many of you know I used to be a Catholic priest. I was ordained a transitional deacon in September of 1993 and a priest the following May. I certainly enjoyed my deacon year and I made friendships that endure to this day. But I was so eager to be a priest that much of my attention looked forward instead of celebrating the present. While I don’t regret that time I now wish (in hindsight) that I had spent more time simply enjoying being a deacon.
In the same way I think many married couples look back on their engagement with the same mixed feelings. Most engaged couples I know spend their engagement worrying about planning the perfect wedding, negotiating with the caterers, and praying that enough (but not too many) people will RSVP. Years later, in happy and fulfilled marriages, they wish they had enjoyed their engagement a little more.
Each year Advent gives us the opportunity to enjoy a time where the world tells us we have to win. Candidly, I think Advent should be longer and Lent shorter, but we have what we have. In the season (in the Northern Hemisphere) where the days are the shortest, when the pressure to attend Christmas parties leaps into high gear, where we are supposed to participate in Secret Santas and bake insane amounts of flour/sugar/chocolate treats, can we find the time to find time for Advent?
I hope we can. Waiting can (and should) be more than a time where we mark time before something happens. Waiting can be anticipating, a time when we look forward to something wonderful; it can be more active and less passive. It can be the time we wasted looking forward to priesthood ordination or marriage. In just a few weeks we will awaken and celebrate that God loves us so much that Jesus came to greet us into the story of Salvation.
Let us turn our waiting into an aggressive anticipation. Let us see Advent as a way we can look forward with joy.