Advent is the start of a new church year, but it does not feel as if a new year is beginning. The calendar New Year is still a month away, and schools opened three months ago. But then we remember what Advent is all about: preparing to celebrate the coming of God among us in the person of Jesus Christ. In a few weeks we will celebrate the birth 2,000 years ago of our Savior.
In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Advent, what does Jesus say? “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” It sounds painfully appropriate today during this frightening fiscal crisis, when the whole country from big-time executives to Main Street investors is looking back at the recent past, wondering why people were not more responsible and careful, why they did not see the meltdown coming. Two years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a Congressional committee described how we had failed to be alert and missed signals of impending doom. And like a committee of one, we look back on times in our own lives when we failed to heed a warning or missed an opportunity, and we say to ourselves, “I should have seen it coming.”
I have said this to myself many times lately when I look back on a recent accident that would not have happened to me if I had simply been more careful in the way I moved about in my room. It turned out that the route between my easy chair and my phone, for all its apparently harmless, prosaic comfort, was actually fraught with danger. I ignored it and paid a heavy price—a broken hip and six weeks in a hospital and a wheelchair. It all comes back to me when I read this Gospel passage where Jesus says, “Be watchful! Be alert!”
Advent is not just a time for regret, however, for looking back on mistakes and missed opportunities. It is about the future. Jesus tells us to be alert because “you do not know when the lord of the house is coming.” He is talking not just about preparing for the hour of our death, when we will have to give God an accounting of our lives. He is talking about the Lord’s coming that can happen in many ways at any time. We are preparing to celebrate Christmas, when he came to us in a very special way. It is a good time to stand back and take a fresh look at ourselves. Is there something missing? Is there something that does not belong? Is there someone out there waiting for us to do the right thing at the right time, before time runs out?
In telling us to be watchful and alert, Jesus is not just warning us to avoid danger. He is urging us not to miss opportunities for goodness that may come our way. In the next few weeks before Christmas, our society will experience an extraordinary, temporary transformation. People of all faiths and no faith will be reaching out to one another, renewing friendships, bonding with family, sharing blessings and trying to help the poor and suffering. It is not all as good as it could be, and there will be frequent calls to get beyond frantic shopping sprees and “put Christ back in Christmas.” Some of our most generous instincts will be exploited and debased by the tireless promoters of conspicuous consumption. Despite all those imperfections, many good things will be happening, and we can be part of it. But we have to be perceptive and alert.
God will try to come to each of us in many ways during the next few weeks. God may remind me of someone who used to be my friend until that ugly quarrel took place a few months or years ago. Would this be a good time to forgive, or at least bury the hatchet? As I run through my address book and decide to whom I will send Christmas cards or gifts, I come across a relative who lives in a nursing home and would welcome a visit much more than a card. Should I fit her into my schedule? A survey of my closet turns up several items of clothing that I never wear. Should I contribute them to a collection for the poor? And so on.
These are not earthshaking inspirations, but they are the stuff of goodness that comes through God’s gentle nudging. If we are watchful and alert to grace, we will help to celebrate the coming of Christ not just as something wonderful that happened a long time ago, but as something that is going on here and now.