Advent, the First Sunday

To You, I lift my soul, O my God. In You, I have trusted; let me not be put to shame. Nor let my enemies exult over me; and let none who hope in You be put to shame. (Psalm 25:1-3).

Lord, make us turn to you; let us see your face and we shall be saved. (Psalm 80:4).

“Be watchful (Βλέπετε)! Be alert (ἀγρυπνεῖτε)! You do not know when the time will come. It is like a man traveling abroad. He leaves home and places his servants in charge, each with his work, and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch (γρηγορῇ). Watch (γρηγορεῖτε), therefore; you do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning. May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch (γρηγορεῖτε)!’ (Mark 13:33-37)”

Be watchful. Be alert. Be on the watch. Watch. Watch. It is hard to miss the verb “watch” in the first Gospel proclamation of Advent. Typical of Saint Mark, the Gospel is blunt, bold and to the point. With the exception of “to be on the watch,” all the verbs are plural, present imperatives. In other words, Jesus’ address is not to an individual but to His disciples. The force of the imperative, sounded in the present (underscoring that this is a work to be done now and immediately), conveys the command “must.” “You [plural] must be watchful, must be alert.” “You [plural] must watch, therefore, …” “I say to all: “you [plural] must watch.”

In addition to the noticeably forceful imperatives, the Evangelist employs three Greek verbs: βλέπω (blepo, to look at), ἀγρυπνέω (agrupneo, to be without sleep) and γρηγορεύω (gregoreuo, to keep awake) in these 5 verses from chapter 13. Biblical Greek specialists note that these words, in varying degress, have a ‘figurative’ meaning that speaks of a disposition the believer nurtures as she or he waits for the return of Jesus the Lord, γρηγορεύω (gregoreuo, to keep awake) more so. Another view of these verbs is that they have a ‘deeper meaning’ or salvific meaning in the context of Christian living. They express what the Church prays in every celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist following the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of Your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Being watchful, being alert and watching are done because Jesus will return and will return at a time unknown to us. But wait, we heard that message last Sunday, correct? We heard this message at daily Mass last week, correct? So what is uniquely ‘Adventy’ about “the Lord of the house” returning?

Because the Lord is returning, He commands all initially to “be watchful (Βλέπετε)” and “be alert (ἀγρυπνεῖτε).” βλέπω (blepo, to look at) while translated here “be watchful,” often indicates a type of ‘seeing’ that penetrates or gazes to the core of a given reality. When a person is the object, blepo is the ‘seeing to the heart,’ the motives or the agenda that drive our thoughts, words and actions. βλέπω (blepo) can also mean “to see” in the sense of “to contemplate.” In the Marcan Gospel, blepo is ‘how’ Jesus sees. His gaze penetrates the surface and gets to the ground of reality. Admittedly in Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus ‘blepoes’ He often does not like what He sees because He gazes upon a harden-heart.

In addition to the command “be watchful,” Jesus issues the command “be alert ἀγρυπνέω (agrupneo)!” Another way of translating this command: “You must not sleep!” (I can’t wait to see and to hear the congregation’s response to this. Interestingly, in the Letter to the Hebrews – building on Psalm 95 – we are permitted to rest … but that is a thought for another day.) This command catches us off-guard in its bluntness. But when you stop to consider, the two initial commands complement each other. Intense gazing requires ‘eyes’ wide open, not shut as we do when sleeping. Not sleeping, i.e. awake, enables us to see reality about us. Seeing the world around us calls for attentiveness and vigilance, the third verb in the group: γρηγορεύω (gregoreuo). This verb expresses Jesus’ command: “Watch.” Often in the Gospels, this verb is paired with Jesus’ return at the end of the ages. Translated in Sunday’s Text as the command “watch,” γρηγορεύω (gregoreuo) has a long tradition of referring to spiritual attentiveness, most especially – as Patristic commentaries repeatedly point out – the attentiveness of the lover waiting the beloved as expressed in the Song of Songs.

Jesus’ 3 commands in this Sunday’s Gospel do help us to grasp the uniqueness of His return in the context of Advent. When Sacred Scripture speaks of Jesus’ return, the Greek word παρουσία (parousia) is often used and has become a significant theological term synonymous with Jesus’ Second Coming. Yet among the Fathers of the Church, παρουσία (parousia) had another significance in their time: presence. While “we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ” we cannot afford to miss His presence NOW, especially His presence sacramentally, in the poor and where “2 or 3 gather” in His Name. As such, Advent becomes more than a Liturgical Season, it becomes a way of living energized by the grace ‘to gaze with attentive vigilance’ Jesus’ presence among us. We recognize that much of our lives quite frankly can be considered ‘sleep walking,’ ‘sleep working,’ even ‘sleep praying’ and ‘sleep living.’ Advent, both as a season and a way of life, sounds an urgent command: no sleeping, eyes wide open, hearts attentive to gaze and to behold His presence now.

Grant Your faithful, we pray, Almighty God,
the resolve to run forth to meet Your Christ
with righteous deeds at His coming,
so that, gathered at His right hand,
they may be worthy to possess the heavenly Kingdom.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You in the unity of the Holy Spirit
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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