Be watchful! Be alert! Don’t be caught unaware!” Jesus warns his disciples in this Sunday’s Gospel. We begin another Advent season of watching and waiting. For some it is a time of delight, waiting eagerly for Christmas, for anticipated gifts, for time off from work and school, for happy gatherings of family and friends. For others it is a dreaded time, as they approach their first holiday without a loved one or worry about how they will pay for the gifts and meals they want to provide. Whatever our situation, the Scripture readings today help us to adopt a stance of faithful watching and waiting.
Advent is not a time of waiting for the coming of the Christ child—that already happened more than 2,000 years ago. It is, rather, a time when we break our normal routine and move into heightened alert to perceive more intensely the ways of Emmanuel, “God with us.” The watchfulness about which Jesus speaks in today’s Gospel is not waiting in dread, nor is the object of our vigilance unknown. Rather, it is attentive listening for the familiar footstep of the returning Beloved. We would not want to be found sleeping, but ready with open arms.
Most of us find waiting very difficult. We try to eliminate it as much as possible with fast food, express lines and ever speedier Internet connections. Waiting for the end of a prolonged illness, or at the unemployment office, is another kind of torturous waiting. Waiting for the return of a long-expected loved one can seem impossibly long. It is this last kind of waiting of which today’s Gospel speaks: constant vigilance for the return of the Beloved who has entrusted everything to our care in the interim.
The time of waiting and watching is not idle biding of time or maintaining the status quo. Like parents anticipating the birth of a child, we have much work to do during the expectant months. In today’s Gospel Jesus talks about each one having his or her own work to do and having been given the power to accomplish it. Paul, too, encourages the Corinthians and us by reminding us that we lack no spiritual gift as we wait for the revelation of Christ.
We may wonder how we will recognize the Coming One. In the first reading today the exiles want God to manifest divine power in a way that will be absolutely unmistakable. They pray that God would “rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before” him. They want God to show divine power in “awesome deeds,” such as “no ear has ever heard, no eye has ever seen.” Such a revelation would compel belief and good behavior. But in Advent we call to mind again that divine power is revealed not in pyrotechnic displays of fire and quaking mountains, but in the immense love that comes in the form of a vulnerable child. God has ruptured the dividing line between divinity and humanity by taking on human flesh in Christ. Advent asks us, likewise, to both embody Christ and to watch for his presence in each one we meet, particularly those who are most needy.
In our watching and waiting, we can become discouraged by how unlike Christ we have been. We can feel like the returned exiles in the first reading from Isaiah, who lament, “all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rages; we have all withered like leaves and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” Although they had experienced God’s redeeming acts in bringing them safely out of Babylon, they now find daunting the work of reconstructing the Temple and their lives in Jerusalem. Their land is despoiled, their economic resources are puny, and their own sinfulness looms large. Unable by their own means to reshape the inner and outer muck of their lives, they give themselves over to the Divine Potter saying, “we are the clay and you the potter; we are all the work of your hands.” This is the One who remolds them into a faithful and hope-filled people.
In the end it is not we but God who is faithful and watchful, as Paul tells the Corinthians. It is God who shepherds us with gentle strength, God who tenderly cares for us like a vinedresser his vineyard, as the responsorial psalm assures us. No matter what our circumstances, the Divine Potter can mold us into watchful and hopeful disciples, empty bowls, open and waiting.
The beginning of a new liturgical year is a season to hollow out space in the busiest of days to rejoice in the extraordinary gift that has already been given us in Emmanuel, God with us. It is a time to let ourselves be remolded. It is a season to wait in hopeful anticipation for what this new piece of art will become.