I Say to All: “Watch”

Here is the homily that I preached this weekend, for the First Sunday of Advent, on being watchful of the Lord’s presence now so that we can be prepared for his second coming.

The season of Advent, which begins today, is a celebration of the presence of God in our world. In fact, the word “advent” in its original sense does not mean “expectation”, as we tend to think today, but “presence” – and it was used specifically to refer to the presence of a king, or of God. God is truly present in the world, even as we expect his second coming. He is present because he became man in Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago, and because Christ continues to abide in his Church. So this season is a celebration of God’s current presence, as we commemorate his first coming into the world and look forward to his second coming.

But how difficult it is to sense or experience God’s presence at times! The first reading captures the sentiment well: “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old”. We want God to make his presence felt to us in an extraordinary way; to cut through all that is around us – to “rend the heavens and come down” – and to show us his glory. I wonder how many of us have ever prayed this way, though perhaps not in language as poetic as the reading used: “Jesus, show yourself to me!” But this is not, ordinarily, the way that the Lord works!

So we come back to the reason for this season of Advent. It is a time to focus on the presence of God where it may be properly or ordinarily experienced, as we await his definitive return, an event for which we must hasten to prepare. And we already have an answer to those sentiments expressed in the first reading, if we would only think back to the Prophet Elijah and what he experienced: when he encountered a great wind, the Lord was not in the wind; then he experienced an earthquake, and the Lord was not in the earthquake; then he saw a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. The heavens were literally rent before him, yet the Lord was not in any of that drama. Where was the Lord? He was in the “still, small voice”, or “tiny whispering sound”, as some of our translations have it. The original Hebrew words of that verse are even more interesting: it could just as well be translated that the Lord was in “the sound of silence”.

The “sound of silence” is a great oldie that we hear on the radio, but in order to experience that sound we need to turn the radio off. We need to step aside from the hustle and bustle. We need to go into our “inner room”, as Christ says someplace in the gospel, and commune with God in quiet. It is unrealistic for us to think that God will make some splendid, extraordinary appearance in our lives; rather, if we would be realists, we would seek him where he is to be found: in the silence of our hearts.

This seeking for Christ in silence is most necessary, since we are commanded to prepare ourselves for that definitive moment when we will meet him, be judged by him, and – we pray – go to be with him in perfect happiness forever. Could Christ have made it any clearer to us in today’s gospel?  “Be watchful!”, he says, “Be alert! You do not know when the time will come…. May [the Lord] not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’!” . His words are rather unsettling, when we look at ourselves honestly and see how we are living right now. Maybe we are not taking his second coming seriously enough. Maybe we are putting some things off. Perhaps we are keeping the Lord at arm’s length. Yet the first reading again gives voice to our sentiment, where it said: “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”.

Christ is truly present in our world, albeit in a hidden way, to shepherd us towards his definitive coming, when the veil will be lifted and we will see him face to face. So much noise and so many distractions obscure his presence, however – not to mention our own sins and the sins of others – and we so often do not perceive him. This season of Advent is a time for us to re-connect with the Lord Jesus, so that we can celebrate Christmas more genuinely, more sincerely.

So it behooves us to meditate upon the silence of Bethlehem, which is, in a certain sense, the goal or end of this liturgical season. These four weeks or so of preparation will end in an encounter with the Nativity, as we recall how the people were so busy and distracted, so dull and desensitized, that they could not make room for Christ when he came the first time; thus he was born quietly and unnoticed in a manger. Will he find no room in our hearts? His presence will not go unnoticed by us, if we would only step back and seek him out in the sound of silence.

There is so much to do over the next few weeks: parties to attend, special meals to make, gifts to buy, decorating to be done; what a pity it would be, though, if our checklist did not include, in the first place: “Seek God where he may be truly found, instead of maintaining unrealistic expectations”. Daily silence. Daily prayer. We say to God, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways!”; God says to us, “You do not know when the time will come…. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’!”.

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