Isaiah 63: 16-17; 64: 2-7
1 Corinthians 1: 3-9
Mark 13: 33-37
There is a decidedly apocalyptic tone to the readings for today – that is, the expectation that some kind of radical intervention by God is coming, and it is coming soon. The message, therefore, is quite clear, and Jesus repeats it several times in four verses from Mark’s Gospel – “Watch! Be alert!”
I want to suggest that there are several different kinds of being watchful, and that if we look closely at these readings, the kind of watchfulness demanded of those who listen intently to the Word of God is a distinctive kind of watchfulness, and that it is not the kind that we as humans tend to expect. The readings from Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and Mark each challenge us as Christians to cultivate a distinctive kind of hopeful watchfulness – one that is particularly fitting to strive for this Advent.
The reading from Isaiah comes from the last section of the book, what scholars often refer to as “third Isaiah” (Chapters 56-66). This third part of Isaiah was most likely written during the period of return to Judah, during which Judah itself struggled with growing economic inequality, and a temptation to return to the worship of other gods (e.g., “all of us have become like unclean people…There is none who calls upon your name”). The tone of the book of Isaiah is consistent in insisting upon the fidelity of God in continually calling God’s chosen back, even amidst the most tumultuous historical events, catastrophes, and hopes. It is within this latter period as well that a growing apocalyptic expectation took hold amongst some who awaited a final reckoning by God on behalf of the chosen ones – a theme that reaches its pinnacles in the books of Daniel and the Revelation of John. Isaiah harkens back to fidelity to God, to become like clay in the potter’s hands.
Likewise, the Gentile Christians of the Corinthian church eagerly awaited the return of Jesus. In their desire to express their authentic faith, especially to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, they proudly demonstrated that they were a spirit filled church, “not lacking in any spiritual gift.” Paul wants to affirm the authenticity of their vibrant faith, while also tempering their tendency toward enthusiasm with a reminder that the true mark of Christian faith is not charismatic exuberance, but a willingness to endure the suffering of the cross on a day to day basis (2 Cor 11: 23-29), and to practice love in the difficult crucible of a community of imperfect individuals (1 Cor 13-14).
Finally, in Mark’s Gospel, in which Jesus as the suffering Messiah is emphasized more than in any other Gospel (Jesus repeats over and over that he must suffer and die, yet the disciples never get it – 8:31), the admonition to watchfulness is intended to provoke alertness and discernment on the part of those who hear the message. But what is this alertness intended to provoke? If indeed one awaits for a powerful intervention by God, then there is a natural human tendency to become rather hysterical in this expectation – even to the point of overlooking the basic doctrinal and moral commitments that one holds dear (this is what the Corinthians were doing, and what millennial movements have always tended towards).
Rather, each of these readings calls us back to the daily contemplation of the divine mystery in the small things, because when we eagerly await what we think we know God has planned we tend to miss what God is actually doing. And this is precisely why these readings are so fitting for Advent. While the world awaited a powerful Messiah, a final apocalyptic battle, the return of the Davidic kingdom, the Savior was born in a backwater stable in Bethlehem. The deeds that God performs in saving God’s people are truly awesome, but they are seldom what anyone expects. This, in turn, calls us to a more patient, humble, and daily cultivation of watchfulness that looks for God in the places where God is least expected. It requires an openness to mystery that is difficult to cultivate, and even more difficult to recognize, when one clings tightly to what is expected, even with the most faithful hopes and intentions. It is the gift of what is often referred to in the Christian tradition as perseverance, the capacity to maintain a steady and even disposition in the midst of life’s ups and downs.
This hopeful, but patient and daily watchfulness is at the root of all wise Christian action – from the most mundane to the most heroic acts. This quiet attentiveness is the root of the Christian moral life, and it is to this contemplative spirit that we are called as we enter into the new liturgical year and Advent. In doing so, we may be surprised by the places in which we see Christ’s Incarnation continuing to manifest itself in our lives and in the world.