Mark 13:33-37, 1st Sunday of Advent
Watch is the last word in the Gospel today. Reflecting on this, I usually let my mind wander and go wherever it leads me. There is the distraction of the Night’s Watch of Game of Thrones. And so I watch. I let YouTube deflect my thoughts for a while, a good while I must confess. For some strange reason though, Linda Ronstadt’s voice cuts in. I follow her lead, in particular, her rendition of the Gershwin song, Someone to Watch Over Me. It’s been decades since I last heard her voice (in the eighties and on cassette tape), and I think to myself, could God be telling me something through Linda? Maybe not, maybe yes. Or maybe he is now nudging me, waking me up from my musical reverie so I can get on at last with writing.
Where to start? Well, we can start with the last word in the Gospel today: watch. We are told to watch for the Lord, for we “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 [us] sleeping.”
Watch. When we are not sleeping, we can appreciate at least three senses of the word. We can watch out (as in “you better watch out” and better not pout because Santa’s coming to town); we can watch over (there goes Linda again); and we can watch for (as in look for whatever or whoever it is we need and long for this Advent).
Watch out. We are to be careful at all times because bad and naughty stuff can fall on us without warning. If we do not watch out, we might get hurt. As Isaiah the prophet warns us in the first reading, we end up wandering off and losing our way, when “there is none who calls upon [the Lord’s] name, who rouses himself to cling to you.”
Watch out then for dangers that lurk beneath this homey time of Advent and Christmas. Be cautious about the splurge of the season. We run the risk of being partied out, shopped out, tired out. Dysfunctions get amplified at this time because of the contrast between tinsel on trees and shards on the floor, the jarring of light and shadow. December is the season of fervid socializing; it can also be a time of intense loneliness and longing.
In and off season, there is one more danger that we cannot just sleep off. If we do not watch out, we risk deceiving ourselves into thinking we can self-shape ourselves into anything that suits our fancy. We risk letting others shape us into something we are not. The prophet brings us back to dust again today by reminding us that we are clay and you our God the potter: “we are all the work of your hands.”
Watch over. We are to protect and guard those who are entrusted to our care. Who are those under our watch? In the first instance, we have our inner perimeter of familiarity: the faces of our family and friends. Beyond this perimeter are the less familiar faces in community and nation and world. We are to watch over those we love, yes, but more vitally, we are to watch over those who have no one to watch over them. We are to protect the vulnerable and defend those who live at the edge of life who cannot defend themselves. As stewards, we are to watch over creation even, especially when our common garden is assaulted by apathy and aggressive development.
This kind of sentinel duty demands strength. We are then to watch over ourselves as well so that we can be strong enough to stand our station and watch over others. We cannot be strong inside if we are not tender and wise with ourselves. This kind of inner strength is not possible without love. And love is not possible if it does not draw from the wellspring of the love of Christ who watches over us. As St Paul assures us in the second reading today, “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Third and last, watch for. This suggests keeping vigil, being on the lookout for something all throughout our lives. To watch for someone is to seek that person intentionally over time, with patience and longing. It is to remain present and awake to the one we wait for in hope and anticipation.
This kind of watching demands wakefulness. If we are not awake, we are sure to miss the giver for the gifts, as we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. If we are not vigilant, we might miss the subtlety of hope in the lights, or the love and affection beneath the Christmas tree. If we are not watchful or mindful of our contingent existence (or the utter unnecessity of our being here or of this entire universe), we will lose our sense of gift and along with that, our humility.
And so we need to watch for whatever or whoever it is we have been longing for all our lives. We need to watch for even a glance of the giver, that glimmer of hope and love, and that subtle sense of gift that abides everywhere.
As we start Advent then, we are to watch out, watch over, and watch for the things that matter. All this demands our being careful and strong and awake. So please put on some speed, follow God’s lead, and concede how we need that Someone to watch over you and me.
*image from the Internet