1st Sunday of Advent (B)

Could the message of today’s readings be any simpler or more direct?  Jesus sums it up with the very last word of our gospel:  “Watch!”  In other words, be alert, be ready, be on the lookout.  Watch!  But is watching really so simple or easy?

Have you ever had to sit through a class that bored you silly?  Under such circumstances, watchfulness can be a seemingly impossible challenge.  Or have you ever had to keep watch over a toddler who seems to be filled with boundless energy and curiosity?  Watchfulness in that case can be absolutely exhausting and nerve-wracking.   Even in professions where watchfulness is essential to survival, tedium, routine, exhaustion, distractions all come into play, so that it’s not unheard of for soldiers on guard duty in war zones to doze off or, at least, to have lapses of attention.

Have you ever missed your exit on the parkway or suddenly realized that you have no recollection of the last ten minutes of driving?  Maybe it dawns on you that you’re not sure what road you’re on or, worse, where you’re going.  When Jesus says, “Watch!” it’s not as trivial a command as it may seem.  He knows he’s asking something difficult.  How much of life passes us by because we’re not paying attention?  How many of God’s blessings do we miss because we’re distracted or preoccupied?   It’s no accident that spiritual guides in all the world’s great religions counsel what’s often called “mindfulness. 

If you’ve ever taken part in or witnessed a Japanese Tea Ceremony, you know that the whole point is to perform each element of the ritual with focus, attention, deliberation—we might almost say, with reverence—as opposed to hurriedly and distractedly.  At the end of the ceremony, all you’ve got is a cup of tea, but it means something different because of what’s gone into making it.  We all drink and eat, probably more than usual this past Thanksgiving, but how much do we really savor and appreciate what we eat and drink and all that went into its being available to us?  The habit of watchfulness can change the way we live and see the world.

But what is that Jesus wants us to be on the watch for?  Well, mostly himself so that we’re ready for him at his Second Coming, or when he calls us home to heaven, or when he whispers little inspirations to us in the circumstances of our daily lives or through the people we meet, including the ones we find most irritating.  He doesn’t want us to miss these encounters or be unprepared for them.

Isn’t it remarkable that we can go for hours, days, maybe more, with God out of sight out of mind?  Would that be the case if we heeded Jesus’ admonition to watch?  “What I say to you,” he says “I say to all:  Watch!”  It may be the hardest thing he ever asks of us.  We can often muster the courage and stamina to bear some heavy cross, but simply to watch, to be alert, to pay attention--how hard it is to maintain vigilance over the long haul.  But that’s what Jesus asks, and he knows what he’s asking and why.  “Watch,” he says.  “Watch.”