Year A: First Sunday of Advent
Preparing for the Son of Man
For as it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away. So will it be [also] at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
- When thinking about the end of your life or the end of history, do you look forward with joy or dread to the coming of the Son of Man? What does your reaction to this passage suggest about your image of and relationship with God?
- If you had the gift of knowing the day and hour your life would end, how would you use your remaining days differently in preparation? Explain
- Beyond celebrating the birth of Jesus, in what new ways can you prepare for and welcome the Lord into your daily life this Advent?
- What spiritual practices help your awareness of the spiritual dimension of people and things in the context of everyday life?
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ
Today’s reading from Matthew skips over the line most scholars see as the first of this short selection: “But of that day and hour, no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24:36) As one commentary noted, the end of the world is a pretty big deal for God to keep secret from Jesus and the angels! That unknowing fits right in with the aphorisms we hear in this short reading. The only definitive thing Jesus says about “that day” is that the disciples should stay awake and be ready for it.
The examples Jesus used in this selection are even more confusing than typical parables. When he talked about Noah it was pretty clear that the people on the losing end of the deal were those who ate and drank and married instead of building an ark. But in the examples of the men working in the field or the women at the mill, it’s unclear whether to “be taken” is reward or punishment. The final example about the thief in the night is pretty clear — nobody wants to be robbed. We’re left wondering if and why Jesus might want us to think of him as a burglar…
Apparently the thrust of Jesus’ teaching is to say that there’s no point in speculating about the end. The only thing for sure is that it will come at an unexpected time and in an unexpected way. It seems that the gist of the message is “Live as if you were going to die tomorrow and as if you were going to live forever.” That’s the truth.
Christians are called to live in a strange equilibrium, loving life and every bit of God’s creation while holding it lightly because we know it is destined for transformation. Advent invites us to remember the long and the short of it. We look to Christ’s return in glory but don’t worry about the details. Instead we keep Isaiah’s vision in mind, allowing it to orient and lead us to participate in making the things of this earth all that they can be.
There is a story entitled, “What is the World Like?”:
God and a man are walking down the road. The man asks God, “What is the world like?” God replies, “I cannot talk when I am thirsty. If you could get me a drink of cool water, we could discuss what the world is like. There is a village nearby. Go and get me a drink.
The man goes into the village and knocks at the door of the first house. A comely young woman opens the door. His jaw drops, but he manages to say, “I need a glass of cool water.”
“Of course,” she says, smiling, “but it is midday. Would you care to stay for some food? “I am hungry,” he says, looking over his shoulder. “And your offer of food is a great kindness.” He goes in and the door closes behind him.
Thirty years go by. The man who wanted to know what the world was like and the woman who offered him food have married and raised five children. He is a respected merchant and she is an honored member of the community. One day a terrible storm comes in off the ocean and threatens their life. The merchant cries out, “Help me, God.”
A voice from the midst of the storm says, “Where is my cup of cold water?”
Spiritual traditions always warn people about becoming lost in the world. (They also warn about being lost in God, but that’s another issue.) The demands of everyday life are merciless. There is always more to do and not enough time to do it. A friend of mine wants inscribed on her tomb the saying, “It’s always something.” At times this constant activity may be boring; at other times it may be exciting. But from the point of view of the story it breeds lack of attention to the demands of God.
What is the world like? The answer of the story is that it is a place of forgetfulness. Or, in the metaphor of Matthew’s text, it is a place where we fall asleep. We do not stay attentive to the spiritual dimension of life. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, working in the field, and grinding at the mill take all our time and, more importantly, take all our mind. When this happens, we find ourselves lacking passion, purpose, and pleasure. As one perplexed person put it, “How can I be so busy and yet so empty?”
This dominance of everyday activity is particularly true in the Christmas season. Already busy people become busier. They have to prepare for the season, which often means more shopping and more work. Unfortunately, this frantic preparation often puts people to sleep spiritually. People begin to long not for the birth of the Christmas Christ, but for the lazy, doldrums days of January. The rush of the season works against the message of the season. Almost everyone has experienced his or her spirits being depleted and even defeated. However, often the alarm does not go off.
We tolerate what T.S. Eliot called, “living and partly living.” We wrongly treat spirit as a luxury. If our bodies are hurting, we will pay attention to them and work hard to recover our physical health. If our financial security or social status is under attack, we will struggle and fight ceaselessly for our money and position. But we will allow our spirit to languish and even atrophy. This tendency to neglect spirit may be the underlying insight of Matthew into the people of Noah’s time. They valued everything but the Spirit that ultimately sustained them.
How are we to keep spiritually aware in the midst of everyday activity? How are we to keep awake while working in the field and grinding at the mill? This is not easy. We may have the desire, but we may lack the know-how. And to shout the command, “stay awake!” (v. 42; NAB) as St. Matthew’s Jesus does, may strengthen commitment, but it does not show a way forward. We need to complement desire with strategies.
Some friends of mine, long-time victims of the stress of everyday activities, suggest smuggling spiritual exercises into the world of work. A Jewish doctor says a Hebrew prayer of purification every time she washes her hands. She explains that the prayer is not meant to purify but to remind her that the person she is treating is more than their disease. In other words, she stays awake to the spiritual dimension of people while she attends to their bodily distress.
A man pauses before a Christmas tree in the building where he works. He brings to mind the connection between heaven and earth and ponders the theological truth that creation is grounded in God. He says that as long as he holds onto this truth, his day goes better. “I notice more. I see the deeper sides of people. And I’m more patient, and respectful.” The awareness of Spirit brings pleasure, passion, and purpose.
Spiritual exercises help us “stay awake through the night.” These exercises may be the rituals and prayers of a faith tradition we engage in with other people. But they may also be home grown practices. Personal “things” we have learned to cultivate in order to stay focused on the deeper dimension of life. These practices become the path to the Gospel value of constant, vigilant awareness. And constant, vigilant awareness is the precondition in order to know and respond to the “coming of the Son of Man” and the arrival of the “day of the Lord.”
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.