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33 Be on watch, be alert, for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It will be like a man who goes away from home on a trip and leaves his servants in charge, after giving to each one his own work to do and after telling the doorkeeper to keep watch. 35 Watch, then, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming—it might be in the evening or at midnight or before dawn or at sunrise. 36 If he comes suddenly, he must not find you asleep. 37 What I say to you, then, I say to all: Watch! ”
To be alert and to keep watch are the keywords of this passage from the Gospel of St Mark. They are repeated with an almost excessive insistence: “Be alert and watch!” (v. 33), “he orders the doorkeeper to stay awake” (v. 34), “so stay awake” (v. 35), “I say to all: stay awake!” (v. 37).
The recommendation to be alert is so important that Jesus repeats it with a parable: “When a man goes abroad and leaves his home, he puts his servants in charge, giving to each one some responsibility and he orders the doorkeeper to stay awake” (v. 34).
The bond of the parable with “So stay awake, for you don’t know when the Lord of the house will come” (v. 35) is not immediately apparent. The invitation to stay awake was first addressed only to the porter (v. 34),then it is extended to all (v. 35). It is a small discrepancy probably due to the fact that Jesus had addressed the parable to his disciples, to remind them of the duty to preserve and make fruitful the treasures left by him, before returning to the Father. It is the evangelist who sees fit to extend it to all the members of his communities, to remind them to be vigilant, in waiting for the coming of the Lord.
What does it mean to ‘be alert’? Why such insistence on the night? Why does the master, instead of coming during the day, arrives suddenly when nobody expects him? Who is the doorkeeper? Who is the master? Where did he go? What powers has he left to his servants?
Before answering these questions, which will introduce us to the message of the parable, it is important to plumb the meaning of v. 35: “So stay awake, therefore, for you do not know when the master of the house comes.” Jesus is not referring to his return at an unspecified distant moment in the future, but his constant renewing presence in the world.
We begin to identify the main character of the parable. The master of the house is Jesus, but he has notgone; he has only changed his way of being present among his own. Now he is closer to every person thanwhen he was walking the streets of Palestine. Having entered the world of the resurrected he is no longer subject to the limits of our human condition. That’s why he invited his disciples to always keep alive the senseof his presence in their midst: “I am with you always, even to the end of this world” (Mt 28:20). It is not, because only one who has the light of faith can truly scan the thick darkness of night.
The fact the Lord warns that he comes at night is also worth noting. Like a thief, he comes when the world is shrouded in darkness: “If the owner of the house knew at what time the thief was coming, he would certainly stay up and not allow his house to be broken into” (Mt 24:43). The ten virgins were also surprised in their sleep. They were waiting for the bridegroom who tarried; they all slumbered and slept; “But at midnight, a cry rang out, ‘the bridegroom is here, come out and meet him’” (Mt 25:5-6).
Why so much emphasis on the theme of the night?
The Masters of Israel taught that, in the history of the world, there were four great nights. The first at the time of creation: the sun and the moon did not exist and it was night when God said, “Let there be light”(Gen 1:3). There was a second night, one in which God made the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15). Then a third, the mother of all nights, the liberation of Israel from Egypt; it was “this is the watch for the Lord—all Israel are also to keep vigil on this night, year after year, for all time” (Ex 12:42).
The fourth night is the one Israel still awaits: God will intervene in it to create the new world and to begin his reign.
When, in the New Testament, the coming of the Lord during the night is mentioned, it refers to this fourth night. This is our night; it’s the time we live in, the time that is dark, the time in which the proposals of life that shape the majority consensus are hedonistic, not the beatitudes of Jesus.
This fourth night is further subdivided by Mark, according to the popular Roman computation, into four parts, duly called: evening, midnight, cockcrow, morning (v. 35), to emphasize the warning to be alert, not todoze off even for an instant.
Anyone who has sight guided by love allows himself to be challenged by the events of life, and knows how to identify the signs that the hopes of a new world are beginning to be realized. The one who is vigilant is ready to welcome the Lord who comes and is able to recognize him in those who seek peace, dialogue, and reconciliation; he sees him in the poor who, without resorting to violence, are committed to justice ; and sees him in the stranger who seeks aid, and embraces him in those who are alone and in need of comfort.
Darkness scares and, at some point, it becomes so dense that even the Christian gifted with strong faith can lose sight of his Lord and be overcome by fatigue, boredom, despair. When he feels his eyelids grow heavy with sleep, he must call to mind Paul’s exhortation: Take courage! “The night (the fourth and final night)is almost over and the day is at hand!” (Rom 13:12).
There is a secret to keeping oneself awake, it is prayer understood as a constant dialogue with the Lord.The one who does not pray dozes off. He will eventually end up resigned and will adapt, like unbelievers, to the darkness that envelops the world (Mk 14:37-40).
The servants, another ‘character’ in the parable, represent the disciples engaged in the execution of their Lord’s projects. To each is given a task, a mission to be carried out in accordance with his own capabilities. No one has to wait passively for the host to accomplish his work. The servants are the performers.
The doorkeeper, who has to be more vigilant than others, represents those in the Christian communityresponsible for carrying out the most important services, those on whom the life of the Church depends on for the proclamation of the Word of God, the celebration of the sacraments, and the support of disciples who are wavering in their faith. These doorkeepers have to be more vigilant than others in their thoughts, their words, in their choices of lifestyle. They are encouraged to always behave as “children of the light,” never “children of darkness,” because they have to keep awake their weaker brothers and sisters who are in danger of being deceived by the dominant mentality of this world.
The previous liturgical year, Cycle A, ended with three Sundays in which the Gospel readings had an apocalyptic or eschatological context and character. In these three cases, God’s presence in the final judgment was symbolized under the images of a bridegroom, the master of a household, or a king. He had been absent up to that moment and arrived or returned to evaluate the tasks that the other characters, ten young women, three servants, or all the nations, were expected to have carried out. Today, we also find a master and a doorkeeper. The master’s return means it is time to give account for what we have done, to submit our life to judgement. The problem, we were warned, is that no one but the Father knows the time in which that judgement will take place. The only thing we know is that the “coming” will happen unexpectedly. Hence, the warning from the Lord: “Be on watch, be alert” (Mark 13:33). This attitude of alertness links not only Advent, but also the whole course of the liturgical year, with the reality of human life.
We find here the three dimensions in which our existence spreads out: heirs as we are to the promises from the past (the announcement of a Messiah who is both judge and Lord of history), we look forward to his coming at the end of time. As Christian believers, we recognize that Messiah came in historical, real time, and in a particular place: twenty centuries ago, in Palestine. At the same time, as citizens of this world, we endeavour to find the promised Messiah among us, here and now. This time of Advent, then, is a crossroad in whose celebration past, present and future meet simultaneously. It is a time in which, looking backwards, we will recall all the promises that God made to Israel.
The first readings will be taken mainly from the book of Isaiah, and in all cases the coming of the Lord will be announced as the Good News of salvation for his people. Looking towards the past, too, we will contemplate a double historical coming of the Messiah: his birth in Bethlehem, and the commencement of his ministry. That is why the cycle of Christmas will end with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. We look also towards the future, the final goal of history in which, as we heard last Sunday, all of us, “all nations,” will be summoned to settle accounts with the Son of Man, and our lives will be subjected to a final judgement on the basis of love and solidarity.
But Advent is also a time to look attentively to the present. Besides the historical and eschatological comings of the Lord, there is another humble, quiet, but decisive coming of the Lord to our common current life. In this sense, we must link this time with the reading of Matthew 25:31-46 that we heard last Sunday: the Lord arrives to us every day in those who suffer around us. We must keep our eyes open and be alert to discover him, so that we do not have to hear the same reproach some of Jesus’ contemporaries heard — even if you see with your eyes, you are blind to the reality of the Lord who comes to you, not only in this solemn time of Advent, but in every moment of your life.
In many Christian traditions, it is customary to light four candles, one every Sunday of Advent, as a sign announcing the coming birth of the Lord. Think of the ways in which you can “light your inner candles” as a reminder of the care, and the loving attitude you should show towards the Lord who comes to you in your brothers and sisters. Christmas is at hand. Even more than a few weeks ahead of it, our streets and homes, our schools and stores, TV commercials and magazines, everything is invaded by music, images and décor announcing the birth of the Lord. Consider to what extent all that becomes a noise which distracts us from the real coming of Christ: in the quiet of the night, when and where nobody expects him. Try to make space for an inner silence to listen to his humble presence.
Pray for yourself, that you may not slumber and forget your attitude of Christian watchfulness while you wait for the coming of our Lord. Pray for those (maybe you are one of them) who have given up waiting for the Good News of God and for those who routinely live their fading faith, that Advent time may renew their desire to receive the Lord.
We know that we “have not failed to receive a single blessing as we wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed” (1 Corinthians 1:7); read, then, quietly the instructions which Paul gives to the Christian community in Rome (Romans 1:11-14) and see in which way you, too, can keep the same attitude of watchfulness that today’s liturgy recommends.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón Director of Inter-Religious Affairs Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain