Our Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent sets the theme for the season: “It is like a man traveling abroad. Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming.”
Perhaps you are familiar with St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s famous sermon on “the three advents.” There was the first coming of Christ, in Bethlehem. There will be the final coming of Christ, on the last day. And there is his daily coming, today.
Advent calls us to think of all three: to prepare to celebrate his first coming at Christmas by also thinking of his final coming, and by living each day in preparation for his coming.
The Gospel reading, from Mark (we now begin Mark’s year in the Lectionary), gives three fine details.
First, it says, “He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his own work,” but then focuses in on a particular work, “and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.” We are told especially to identify with the gatekeeper: “Watch, therefore.”
But both in the parable and in our lives, the gatekeeper’s job bleeds into all jobs. He watches for the coming of the Lord – but so too must everyone else, each in their own work.
In the same way, we are not only called to be gatekeepers. In this life we are called to do much more than sit and wait. We are “each with his own work.” Rather, in our work, in all the particularities of the life Christ has given us, we are to be preparing for his coming. Not by setting aside our lives, but by living them fully.
A second angle on the same thing: Christ is “the Lord of the house.” Our lives belong to him. Our houses (which we must therefore make fair as we are able), our children (whom we must raise for him), our jobs (which we must do as if working in his household), and everything else.
The coming of the Lord doesn’t mean this life doesn’t matter. If he is “the Lord of the house,” the we must live our vocations more deeply, preparing for him.
And a third angle: “you do not know when.” We could say there are two kinds of apocalpyticisms, a doctrinaire one and a moral one. “Doctrinaire apocalypticism” thinks the point is what we do know. We have secret knowledge. We know there will be a last day. (Notice that Christ himself is not that important to doctrinaire apocalypticism.) And sometimes people – more often Protestants, but sometimes Catholics too – get really excited about predicting when.
But when he says, “you do know when,” he teaches a kind of “moral apocalypticism.” Oh, it’s true, we believe he will indeed come, to judge the living and the dead. But the point of this teaching is not that we know, the point is how we live. We are called to live like we don’t know when, so that we are prepared every day for the Lord of the household to come.
Sunday’s first two readings teach, above all, that we need Jesus himself to prepare us for his coming. His coming at Bethlehem – and his giving of the sacraments – works in us to prepare for his coming today, and on the last day.
The Psalm response speaks a key doctrine of grace: “Lord, make us turn to you.” That fabulous little line contains both sides of grace. On the one hand, grace is God’s work in us. He makes us turn. We can almost blame him for not turning us. We can’t do it on our own.
But we do do it. “Make us turn.” God’s grace doesn’t work outside of us, it works in us. It causes us to turn. Jesus, cause me to love you; cause me to choose you; cause me to seek you and prepare for you.
So Isaiah speaks those unspeakable words, found throughout the Bible: “Why do you let us wander . . . and harden our hearts?” We so desperately need God’s grace that we almost blame God for our failing. Without him we can do nothing (John 15:5).
And he goes on at length about our hopelessness without God. “Yet, O Lord, you are the father; we are the clay and you are the potter.” “You wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for.”
But once Christ has come, Paul says, in the opening to First Corinthians, “in him you were enriched in every way . . . not lacking in any spiritual gift.”
And he puts this precisely in our Advent context: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you firm to the end.”
We live always in preparation for his coming – and in thanksgiving that he himself works in us to prepare us.
What does the Lord of the household want you to be preparing?