Today we begin the season of Advent which marks the start of a new liturgical year for the Church. This week and next week, our readings from Mark’s Gospel present two important Advent themes: The Lord’s return at the end of time and John the Baptist’s preparation for Jesus.
Today’s Gospel is taken from the end of Mark’s Gospel, the chapter that immediately precedes Mark’s account of Jesus’ Passion. Having been questioned repeatedly by the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus is now questioned by his disciples—Peter, James, John, and Andrew—who want details about his prediction of the destruction of the Temple. Jesus answers with many warnings about the difficulties that the disciples will face.
Christ calls to his disciples and the whole Church to “keep awake,” to keep alert and remember: this is going to be difficult. It’s not going to happen the way you planned it. This idea of keeping awake is at the heart of Advent, a time of waiting and watching, but it also calls to mind a very human thing: to stay awake when you would normally be sleeping. At some point, every person has cause to be awake through the night. Depending on the circumstances, it can be either exhausting or exhilarating, or some combination of both.
At the beginning of this chapter of Mark, Jesus is walking out of the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples when they point up and exclaim, “What large stones, and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Jesus cryptically tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” and it has a chilling effect on the disciples. They’re intrigued, naturally, and want to know more about all of this, namely, when it will happen. Jesus tells them, in so many words: keep awake. And he doesn’t give them specifics, so that they can plan, when the best thing to do is simply keep alert.
Now, as Christmas approaches, many begin (or continue) preparations to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Clergy and musicians and choirs prepare for services, as many prepare for travel or the arrival of loved ones or family dinners or community parties or frantically wondering what we will do or where we will go this year.
The coming of Christmas creates, in most of us, a sense of both longing and urgency. We call ourselves to keep alert, keep awake, to work hard to get ready for this holiday that’s coming whether we like it or not. And many years, it doesn’t happen the way we plan it. We must adapt and adjust and keep awake — we must stay on our toes.
As many stress over the coming holiday, Advent calls us to prepare for something much bigger than the yearly arrival of Christmas. Advent calls us to pay attention to the world around us, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger.
The first Sunday of Advent, reminds us that our ancestors once called out for a Saviour, and that we in the Church wait for the return of one. We wait, and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake. In our world torn by pain and division, we look at the pain all around us and we wonder, “how long?” In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever.
But this season that we begin today — Advent — has a presence that calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, “Keep awake!” It is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming that is even bigger than Christmas.
The world still waits for justice. The world still waits for peace. The world still waits for God. Advent says to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming. So,like the disciples and the faithful in Mark’s community, we must also stay alert and watchful. Our faithfulness to God, through the good times as well as the difficult times, shows us to be ready for the coming of the Son of Man.
THE FOUR WEEKS OF ADVENT
During the first two weeks of Advent we light the first two purple candles. The Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. On this day we celebrate that our waiting for the birth of Jesus on Christmas day is almost over. Rose is a liturgical color that is used to signify joy, so we light the single pink candle on the third Sunday of Advent. Then on the fourth Sunday of Advent, the final purple candle is lit to mark the final week of prayer and penance as we wait expectantly for the soon-coming birth of the King of Kings.