Advent, from the Latin adventus, means arrival or coming. Something is coming, and we are commanded by the Lord to “Watch!” What kind of Advent are we watching for?
The first reading from Isaiah is a lament of a community returned from exile. Instead of being exhilarated by returning home, they are disheartened. The prayer has everything from repentance (“Our guilt carries us away like the wind”) to appeal to God’s memory (“Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your inheritance”) to blame (“You let us wander…and harden our hearts”).
Perhaps the most dramatic line of this prayer, however, is the plea: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you….” Isaiah’s call for God’s direct, definitive intervention in history reflects an often repeated expectation of “the Day of the Lord.” The Gospel reading from Mark’s apocalyptic chapter aligns with this expectation. Jesus speaks of destruction, abominations, false messiahs and finally his rending the sky and coming down: “And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory…” (13:26).
Jesus ends this discourse with the passage we read today, a parable about a man going on a journey and leaving his servants in charge, each with his own work. The gatekeeper, and indeed all the servants, are commanded to watch for fear that their owner would return when they least expect him and are least prepared.
At the beginning of Advent, the church provides Scripture readings that point us to Christ’s second coming. There need not be any confusion here. Advent is, for sure, a preparation for the celebration of the Incarnation, the humble coming. It directs our thoughts to that moment in history when God became one with us, and God’s eternity one with our destiny. Human history and even time itself became redeemed at that moment. Christ’s return—the glorious coming—then is a completion that God established in his person by the Incarnation. Both looking back at the Incarnation and looking forward to the second coming are really two aspects of the same eternal gaze.
That same gaze, the same eternal truth we see, is ours now. Since we already possess Christ, whose Spirit dwells within, we possess our own future glory in him. Our future is Christ. In this sense, eternity is already within us, already part of us, already recreating us and drawing us to the glory that is already ours, though not fully realized. Now is the advent of Christ in our lives—the hidden coming.
What shall we do with this eternity in time? The first thing to remember is that the servants continued to work as they anticipated the master’s return and that the gatekeeper continued to watch. Watching and working are both important expressions. One takes a contemplative posture and the other an active one. We might want to quiet ourselves during this Advent season with more prayer. We might also allow ourselves to become more eager to respond to God’s work of transforming this world and drawing it to himself (1 Cor 15:24-28).
Working and watching imply each other: If every moment in history draws meaning from God, then nothing is negligible and every thread is a part of a pattern God weaves. Authentic action already is divine encounter. Paying attention is both a religious duty and a sacred possibility.