‘May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.’ (Mk 13:36)
Do you long for Christ’s rescue, or for him to transform some part of your life?
What distractions can you overcome this Advent?
How can you come to believe more deeply in Christ as the one who saves us from calamity?
This message suited Mark’s times. He wrote around the year A.D. 70, in a period of chaos in the Roman world. Assassins had killed the emperor Nero two years before. Three feckless emperors followed in quick succession. Subject peoples everywhere rose up against Rome. Each insurrection failed. In Judea, the Roman general Vespasian fought the Jews ferociously before hurrying back to Rome to be acclaimed emperor. He left his son, Titus, to clean up the last of the resistance. On Aug. 30, A.D. 70, Titus broke through the walls of Jerusalem, sacked the city and destroyed the temple, which has never been rebuilt. (The arch of Titus in Rome commemorates this destruction. The Jewish people felt the loss so keenly that until the late 20th century, rabbinic law forbade any Jew from walking through the arch under penalty of permanent excommunication.)
Christians living in these times felt an acute need for rescue. They knew Jesus had come and they believed God was at work to save them, but they did not know what form their rescue would take. To this community, Mark relays Jesus’ message: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” Throughout his Gospel, Mark shows how hard it was for people to recognize Jesus’ true nature, even when they witnessed the great deeds he performed. Jesus ordered his disciples to remain vigilant for his second coming, lest they too miss his presence. Forty-odd years later, Mark passed this command on to his community, who must have felt, as the world they knew crumbled around them, that they were living in the time Christ foretold.
The church teaches that, although Mark’s historical expectations may have proved incorrect, the message he provides for our salvation is forever true. In today’s Gospel passage, that message is clear: “Watch! May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping!” We wait, like Mark’s community, for the coming of the Son of Man. We know to be alert for Christ at the end of our natural lives. As we begin another Advent, it is also important to remember that Christ appears suddenly in our life every day. Like the characters of Mark’s Gospel, we can easily miss his arrival. If Mark were writing today, he would perhaps use other symbols for that spirit of distraction. “Be watchful! Be alert! May he not find you obsessing over trivia, lusting after images on the internet, preoccupied with your phone or indulging in hate, fear or greed.” May we use these weeks before Christmas to put away our distractions and put our faith in Christ anew.