The message of this week’s Gospel reading is simple: “Stay awake! Christ is on his way.” Be prepared like Noah, who alone of his generation believed God’s promises to be true. Be prepared, even if your preparation mystifies your friends and family. Be prepared, even in the midst of mundane activities. Be prepared like a householder who knows that thieves prowl the night, but not when they will be at his door.
At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come. (Mt 24:44)
• As you rummage through your past, where do you now see that Christ was at work in an unseen way?• How is God calling you to “train your heart” for Christ’s arrival this Advent?
The Gospel of Matthew addresses a crisis. The generation for which it was written, 50 years or more after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was the first to accept that the Lord’s return would be delayed. Fervent belief in Christ’s imminent arrival energized an earlier generation of Christians. By Matthew’s time that same belief brought Christians mockery and doubt. “What do we mean when we say Christ will come again?” Matthew’s response lays the groundwork for Christian ethics. “Stay awake! No one knows the day or the hour. Act always as if Christ were near.” Christ’s arrival is not about the future, but the present. Christians must live in such a way that Christ could come at any moment and find them ready to go.
Matthew’s language also reminds us that for early Christians, Christ’s return was a new Exodus. God had seen their suffering, and his son, the new Moses, was coming. The language of this passage recalls the haste in which Israel fled Egypt: “They knew nothing about what would happen”; “One will be taken, the other left”; “Stay awake! You do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew repeats the admonition “Stay awake!” several times in this chapter. Christ’s future arrival places an obligation on the present. Christians must always be ready to receive Christ.
A rich theology grew from this belief. In addition to his first coming through incarnation, Christ is still to come in several different ways. Foremost, Christ will come at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, just as the early Christians expected. Christ will also come for us at the end of our lives here on earth. Christ comes in the sacraments and actions of the church. In Matthew’s insights today, Christ reminds us that he also comes to save us in daily, unseen ways.
Salvation is disruptive. Sometimes, as in Scripture, God’s salvation is unmistakeable: reticent tongues burn with prophecy, kings lose their thrones, and the meek inherit. After God’s revelation, nothing stays the same. In fact, the Greek word for revelation, apocalypsis, gives its name to a whole disruptive genre. More often, however, Christ’s disruptive salvation comes in quiet ways of daily life. Although nothing stays the same, the moment of our visitation is easy to miss. In his comments on this week’s Gospel, St. Hilary of Poitiers urges constant prayer so that we may be in the right frame of mind to recognize Christ. His insights are still valid. Too often, we recognize Christ’s arrival long after the fact, if at all. We realize that something changed, that at some unknown point our lives took a different direction, that we have arrived at a future we could not have imagined. An addict hitting rock bottom, for example, might not recognize Christ at work in the experience, but later it will be obvious that everything changed in that moment. Or consider a Christian feeling a vocational call, which may start out subtly—even almost subconsciously—only to be recognized much later as Christ’s gentle nudge onto a certain path of holiness and service. Although Christ’s arrival in these moments might, over the long term, reflect a disruption of biblical proportions, it can also be so gentle that it was impossible to catch him in the act.
The four weeks of Advent are a time to recommit to discernment. As the lights of the wreath multiply, we must intensify our search for Christ’s subtle light. This is a fitting time to undertake days of reflection, or practices like a daily examen or spiritual inventory. It is also a time for new joy. At times, the childlike happiness of Christmas can give way to adult feelings of nostalgia and regret. Training our hearts throughout Advent to catch sight of Christ’s daily arrival will provide new reasons for Christmas joy. Let us stay awake, then! Christ is on his way.