“What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”
What a powerful way to begin Advent!
We customarily think of this as a time to get ready for Christmas—with shopping and decorating, mailing and planning.
But that misses something fundamental. Jesus reminds us: the most important thing we can do to begin this season is open our eyes—and open our hearts.
Twice in this Gospel, Jesus gives his followers this simple command: to watch, to be alert, to pay attention.
What are we watching for?
The Gospels over the next few weeks give us clues. We will see miracles and wonder.
We will see a wild man in the desert, wearing the hair of a camel, eating locusts and honey.
We will witness an angel telling a virgin that she will give birth to the Son of God.
We will encounter heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God” when this child is born.
We will see wise men from afar offering priceless gifts.
We will look for a star. Light will pierce the dark and history will be made.
“Watch!,” Jesus says. What you are about to see is unbelievable.
But we believe. As the angel declared to a doubting girl in Galilee: “Nothing is impossible with God.” We believe. We hope. We wait.
And we watch.
This is the great call of Advent, our great purpose during these weeks when we cry out to God, pleading with him to come and ransom us while we wait.
And we watch.
But what are we really watching for? What do we seek?
Our theology tells us there are three comings of Christ—the time when he was born in Bethlehem, the time when he will return to us at the end of history, and the here and now, when Jesus, Emmanuel, continues to dwell among us.
We celebrate the first coming at Christmas, with all the songs and presents and parties. And we watch and “wait in joyful hope” for his last coming at the end of time.
But do we watch for Jesus in his other coming, in the here and now?
Do we actively look for Christ? Are we watching for him? Are we alert to the ways in which he reveals himself every day to a cold and often indifferent world?
This is the Jesus you won’t find in the nativity scene in front of your church. You won’t see him in a Christmas special on TV or on a card from Hallmark.
You will find this Jesus today in other places—not always where you might expect. He comes to us, as one of our prayers tells us, in “Word and Sacrament.”
And, significantly, he comes to us in strangers we meet, as well.
As Mother Teresa used to say, he comes to us in the “distressing disguise of the poor.”
Watch for him. He is there on a park bench, at a bus stop, in an orphanage, in a shelter.
You will find him in every heart that is broken.
You will find him in every child who is forgotten.
You will find him in every family that is anxious, or frightened, or hungry or cold.
You will find him among those seeking solace and refuge, those seeking comfort and hope. He is with those who are outcast and downcast—all of us who need to be ransomed from suffering or sin.
He came to dwell among the poorest, the weakest, the smallest. He sought out those on the margins, whom others had left behind.
And he comes to us again and again—as he will here, at this altar— in the unlikely appearance of a blessed and broken piece of bread—the divine Messiah, the King of Kings, crumbling in our hands.
This is a moment for us to remember that Emmanuel, the one whose name means “God with us,” came to us once—and he is with us still! Advent, this yearly time of prayer and penance and hope, this season of waiting and watching, serves to remind us that he is still here, if only we look for him.
My friend Elizabeth Scalia last year wrote a beautiful reflection on this season. She quoted Pope Benedict:
“’Advent’ does not mean ‘expectation’ as some may think,” he wrote. “It is a translation of the Greek word parousia, which means “presence” or, more accurately, “arrival” — that is, the beginning of a presence. In antiquity the word was a technical term for the presence of a king or ruler, and also of the god being worshipped, who bestows his parousia upon his devotees for a time. ‘Advent,’ then, means a presence begun, the presence being that of God.”
Advent is a time to be more aware of that presence—and to be that presence to others.
In a sense, living this way, we can make of our lives a continual Advent.
As Elizabeth wrote: “It’s not just a story we’re meant to remember; it’s an action we are meant to undertake, so Christ can alight anew within us.”
Let’s spend these blessed days of Advent not just waiting—but watching.
Watching for God’s presence in the world.
Watching for opportunities to give.
Watching for times to forgive. To offer hope. To pray. To be more aware of Christ’s ongoing presence in our world and in our lives—in Word, in Sacrament and, most beautifully, in each other.
“Be alert,” Jesus said. “Be watchful.”
Here is an invitation to be astonished. To be open to wonder. To be open to love—both receiving it and giving it.
This is what Advent is about. During these weeks, we pray to be more aware, more alert, more ready to see what God has given us. Straighten the paths. Clear away the clutter. Then we can see what has been hidden.
The good news of Advent, as Pope Benedict reminds is, is that God’s arrival has begun. He is present for us.
Let us pray during this season to be present for him.