Scripture Readings, Dec. 3, 2023

First Sunday of Advent, Year B

Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b, 64:2-7

Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19

1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Mark 13:33-37

If you’ve ever had to keep a night watch, you’ll know there is a kind of intense and holy stillness to the endeavor. It can also be really boring. As we launch into a new liturgical year this week and enter the mysterious season of Advent, the Lord invites us to live in the tension between the two.

Friends of mine who have served in the military often speak with fondness of keeping the night watch. Though taxing, each hour has its own feel, and its own hidden treasures, from the wind-down of activity in the evening, to the deafening silence of midnight, to the phosphorous first rays of dawn cracking over the horizon.

I kept an all-night watch once at my father’s bedside in the ER after he’d suffered a massive aortic aneurysm. I tracked every beep and boop emitted by the machines keeping him alive, prayed more Rosaries and Divine Mercy Chaplets than I can count, and did an awful lot of head bobbing too. It was a holy and monotonous night.

How can every minute be so charged with life-and-death implications, and yet feel so dull that we struggle to keep our eyes open? And yet, such is life, as we await the return of our King.

“O that you would rend the heavens and come down, [Lord], with the mountains quaking before you,” we pray with the prophet Isaiah this week. (63:19) Pierce the night and shake us out of our stupor! “We have all withered like leaves, and our crimes carry us away like the wind. […] Yet, Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you our potter: we are all the work of your hand.” (Isaiah 64:5, 7)

So, as the Psalmist says, “Stir up your power, [O Shepherd of Israel,] and come to save us.” (Psalm 80:2-3)

This is the cry of the Church each year as we begin anew in the season of Advent, recalling the mighty deeds God has worked of old, and giving him permission, both individual and collective, to work them again in our midst, in our exiles, our slaveries, our night watches, both holy and wearisome. Form us anew, we pray; make us malleable to your will, that we may become the work of your hand — your “handy work.”

Along these lines, our Gospel offers us three different exhortations to jolt us out of our drowsiness and reorient us to the sacred spark of the present hour.

The first is, quite literally, to “See!” (Mark 13:33) This tracks with a theme that runs throughout the Bible of seeing as God sees. Over and again, throughout the Scriptures, people see and take what is good in their own eyes. But from page one of the Bible, we are invited to see what God sees and receive that as good, good, good and very good. Yes, “Be watchful!” as the translation we read in the liturgy puts it, but perhaps above all in the sense of “be perceiving.” Ask for the clarity of vision to see things as God sees them. This vision alone brings true abundance, communion and peaceful wholeness.

The second exhortation is, quite literally, to “Lie awake!” or “Pass sleepless nights!” (Mark 13:33), and thus metaphorically, “Be alert!” as the lectionary puts it. Since this must be an exhortation neither to plot evil on your bed at night (cf. Micah 2:1; Psalm 36:4), nor to lie awake worrying (cf. Matthew 6:25-34), perhaps a better image here is of a father or mother losing sleep as they tend to their newborn. “Pass sleepless nights,” as they do, attending to the needs of the kingdom, serving the poor, providing milk to neophytes, and solid food to the mature. (cf. Hebrews 5:11-14)

And the third is “Watch!” or “Become fully awake!” (Mark 13:35, 37) This was Adam’s initial vocation in the garden, not only tilling it to bring forth its inherent fruits but keeping watch over it to guard it from the likes of the serpent. (cf. Genesis 2:15) Far from sleeping, we must keep watch against the powers of evil that seek to undermine and destroy, to pervert our vision from that of God. Taking up this prophetic vocation to serve as watchmen for God’s household, giving warning when and where it is due (cf. Ezekiel 3:17), we must also remember that it is ultimately the Lord who “watches” over history “to pluck up and break down,” “to build and to plant” as he sees fit. (cf. Jeremiah 38:28) In this the faithful watchman puts his trust, year in and year out, as he awaits the rays of dawn and the coming of the King.