I Say To Everyone: Watch!

Advent 1B

Mark 13: 33 37

Introduction

With this reading of the Holy Gospel according to St Mark, we begin a new Christian year. This is Advent Sunday: the start of four weeks of preparation for the wonderful celebration of the birth of Jesus.

As we have noted in previous years, it can seem more than a little strange to prepare for Christmas with a Gospel reading about the end time and the second advent of Jesus. But as we have also previously noted, the Christian Church has always interpreted the nativity of the Lord in terms of his role both in and beyond human time and space. For now, during this season of preparation, we will allow the four Advent Gospels to help us get used to the threefold coming of the Lord:

  • into human affairs at Bethlehem
  • into our personal lives
  • at the close of time as we know it.

Notice how the Advent Gospels do this in what one could almost describe as an inverse sequence to the above. This prepares us for the action of the divine which is not bound by human dimensions or logic.

In an age when shops have no compunction about selling hot-cross buns from mid January, or filling shelves with Christmas decorations from August, and playing sacred Christian music to stimulate sales from early September, it is understandable for Christians to find it hard to focus on Advent.

Our sacred culture is being openly and blatantly plundered by those who value it only for the financial profits it can bring them. As Christians, let us try and follow the traditional custom of prayer and penance to prepare ourselves to celebrate the awesome festival of Christmas worthily.

Some Notes On the Text

(Note: we include verse 32 for the sake of clarity)

Verse 32

No one knows about that day or hour,
not even the angels in heaven,
nor the Son, but only the Father.

Our Lord has been talking about the signs of the end of time: see verses 5, 9 and 23. Here, it is not that no one knows anything about that day or hour. Rather, our Lord is saying no one knows the precise moment when (verse 33) "that time will come". We quote below, the commentary on the Holy Bible (Editor J. Dummelow) for those who would appreciate a theological note on this verse.

This is the true reading not only here. but in Mt 24: 36, where it has been altered in many MSS, probably as being a difficulty to faith. Rightly to understand it, we must remember that Jesus possessed two complete and perfect natures, the divine and the human. In His divine nature He knew all things whatsoever, but in His human nature He knew only such things as He willed to know. And since it was not expedient that we should know the day and the hour of the Last Judgment. He willed to be ignorant of it. This avowed ignorance implies no limitation of Christ's divine nature. Christ had no will but his Father's. When the Father willed to withhold from Him any of His designs, His will was to be ignorant.

The Arians taught that the Son was ignorant even in His divine nature, but Athanasuis replied, "But lovers of Christ recognise that the Word did not say, "I know not'', as being the Word, for He knew but He thus indicated His humanity, showing that ignorance is part of human nature"

(Note: MSS means Manuscripts of St Mark's Gospel)

To sum up this verse, we use a sentence or two from Augustine Stock O.S.B."

"God can come to us at any time; in Jesus Christ the fulfilment is always near at hand. It touches us in our meeting with the Word of God, it lays a claim on us in every decision to believe and to act as a Christian, and it comes to us in a unique way in our personal death. Mark sees the end of all things is always before us."

Verse 33

Be on guard! Be alert!
You do not know when that time will come.

This does not mean do nothing but stand and watch. Rather, be open to all that is happening around you; think about it and interpret what you see and hear. Be open, therefore, to all sources of information. Do not be distracted, but ready to respond. This frame of mind will also characterise the prayer of the Christian in the world: always ready to respond, especially when that time arrives (point of time, not a duration).

Verse 34

It is like a man going away: he leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with this assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

This is like a minature parable: the Master appoints his household to carry out the tasks each servant has been allocated, and as he leaves, tells the one at the door to watch for his return.

Here, our Lord emphasises the individual nature of discipleship: each has a specific task to do, and will be free to do it in his own way. (Ten exousian, Greek for "the authority" to make decisions) By completing this task, each servant fulfils his / her obligation to watch.

Verses 35 and 36

Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you.

Our Lord is being very insistent that our lives must be wholly oriented towards his return. This is clear by the fact that he names the four watches (segments) of the Roman 24 hour day.

Charles Erdman reminds us that watchfulness does not consist of:

  • idle speculation of the time of our Lord's return;
  • the presumptuous setting of dates
  • neglect of duty, especially by over emphasising religious practice while undervaluing one's work or domestic duties.

On the contrary, he explains, we are called to absolute fidelity round the clock to our daily tasks. "If he comes suddenly" he had better not find us neglecting to carry out our proper duties which, of course, must include the careful provision of healthy, quality rest and sleep. As Barclay says, we must so live, that it does not matter when he comes! This understanding gives us the great task of making every day fit for him to see, and being at any moment ready to meet him face to face.

Verse 37

What I say to you, I say to everyone: "Watch!"

Interestingly, the first Christians were so taken with this admonition of the Lord that from the Greek word for 'watch' (gregoreite, be wakeful) they formed the name for their sons: Gregory.

Jesus concludes his forceful lesson by speaking to all his followers far beyond the immediate circle of his listeners, down through the ages: everyone is to be vigilant at all times. William Lane has pointed out that this "final call to watchfulness in verse 37 is not focussed exclusively upon the last day, but like the previous admonitions, has a bearing upon the continuing life of the Church during an age marked by false teachers, persecution and delay in the Lord's return".

Thus we need to keep before us our Lord's warning to be watchful not just for perils from outside the Church, but equally from within.

Conclusion

To many, it may still seem strange to be preparing for Christmas by meditating on the second coming of the Lord. The experience of the Church, however, over the past 20 centuries, has been that we need to view all the great Biblical events within the whole of "salvation history". When we do this it becomes natural for us to see them in a new dimension, with heightened meaning for us. Unless we do this, they can become (and this is especially true of Christmas) rather superficial and merely sentimental re-enactments.

The new Church Year is beginning. This is the time for Christians to make resolutions, not January lst. Following our Lord's plea to his disciples, we could do no better than to resolve to join our fellow Christians and "watch!"

Further Reading: J.C. Ryle.

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