THIS week’s Gospel reading invites us to see “the world as Gethsemane” (Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man, Orbis, 2008). It summons us to remain awake and vigilant amid the darkness of human history.
In this section of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is preparing his disciples for two tribulations. In Mark 13, he predicts the destruction of the Temple. It is widely thought that the Gospel was written in the aftermath of this event. In Mark 14, the destruction of Jesus’s own body is twice prefigured: first, as he is anointed for burial by an unnamed woman; and, second, as he celebrates the Last Supper with the Twelve.
In the face of both tribulations, Jesus urges his disciples to “stay awake”. He lists the four Roman “watches” of the night, as he warns them that the Son of Man may return “in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn” (13.35). These four “watches” correspond with key moments in Jesus’s Passion (R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St Mark, Wipf & Stock, 2004). The vigilance that Jesus commands as we wait for his return stands in contrast to the behaviour of his first disciples, who fell asleep in the garden as he contemplated his Passion.
To read such a passage at the start of Advent reminds us that the Christmas story is no consoling fantasy. The Christ-child is thrust into the tumult and violence of human history. This week’s Gospel reveals the true nature of our hope. The Advent season does not invite us to evade the realities of this world’s pain and tribulation: it offers a deeper and more substantial consolation. We are to remain alert and steadfast, confident that Christ is present in whatever convulsions we may face — whether in our homes and workplaces, or in the dark and dangerous state of international affairs. He is revealed, both as the one who bears these sufferings with us, and as the one who inaugurates a new creation in which pain and tears shall be no more.
THIS week’s Old Testament readings force us to confront our own responsibility for the tribulations of the world. Both the Psalmist and Isaiah cry to the Lord for deliverance. They combine their pleading, however, with a recognition of their past sins, and the promise to amend their lives. Isaiah tells God that “we fade like a leaf and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (64.6). The Psalmist vows that, if God shows his people mercy, “we will not go back from you” (80.19). In Christ, God does not offer an easy affirmation of our current way of life, but an invitation to be transformed. In the words of this Sunday’s collect, the One for whom we wait in Advent will return “in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead”.
There is a tension here: God’s grace is offered freely, but, in T. S. Eliot’s words, the response costs us “not less than everything” (Four Quartets). The relationship between free grace and faithful response is one of the central themes in St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians. The fact that grace is free does not give the Christians in Corinth licence to sleep in their sins.
This brings us to the heart of Advent: a season whose focus is on both the gift of grace and the call to wakefulness. That the Christian year begins with a time of expectation is a reminder that all our action as disciples must flow from his saving work. The initiative in redemption is God’s, not ours. The first task of the Christian is to watch and wait. Such attentive waiting is itself a demanding discipline, however, that requires energy and commitment. For this reason, as we begin this season, the Church asks for the grace to keep it well:
O Lord our God, make us watchful and keep us faithful as we await the coming of your Son our Lord; that, when he shall appear, he may not find us sleeping in sin but active in his service and joyful in his praise; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(Common Worship, post-communion for Advent 1)
Canon Angus Ritchie is director of the Centre for Theology and Community, and Priest-in-Charge of St George-in-the-East, London.
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