Aren’t we rushing things a bit? The Thanksgiving Day turkey has barely been finished. We haven’t exchanged Christmas gifts and cheer. What’s all this talk about the New Year? Simple: the First Sunday of Advent, which is coming this December 3, signals a new liturgical year. We begin a new cycle of readings and reflections concerning “the whole mystery of Christ, not only his Incarnation and Birth until his Ascencion, but also as reflected in the day of Pentecost, and the expectation of a blessed return of the Lord.”
Each new experience fills us with the excitement of anticipation as well as the anxiety of the unknown. The “NEW” speaks to us of growth, possibilities, creativity and a break with the past. At the same time, we must surrender the familiar with all its securities and sense of order. The “NEW” can be risky business. Hence, the temptation is great to retreat to the near and not go forward into the unknown. Biblical examples abound: the call of Abraha to leave his homeland and begin anew; the Hebrews leaving Egypt to journey to a Promised Land; the disciples becoming fishers of men; and the zealot Saul becoming Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. All these indicate that beginning anew evokes a special quality.
Matthew 24:37-44 indicate what this quality is: the ability to be watchful.
37 For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, 39 and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken in-to. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. (ESV)
For if we are not watchful and alert, we can easily lose our way and fall. To be watchful is to be aware and sensitive to the realities around us. Watchfulness does not allow self-absorption. Above all, to be watchful and alert is to know what time it is. And there is the rub. Time is so familiar, yet so mysterious. Augustine once said that he thought he knew what time was until someone asked him. Then he realized he didn’t know what time was at all.
Paul’s letter to the Romans 13:11 reads thus: “Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” Jesus in speaking to his disciples says: “For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:37). And again: But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:43-44). Jesus and Paul are reminding us of that dimension of time that cannot be measured by watch and calendar. There is sacred and ultimately important aspect about such time. We can miss and make-up many things: tests, a ballgame, a dental appointment. But there is an urgency and uniqueness about God’s inbreaking into our lives and history. To miss it because we are self-concerned, absorbed in worldly affairs or simply uninterested is to endanger our salvation.
The watchful, alert person is also a person of action. The time of God’s visitation requires us to break with the past reign of sin. We must live in a new way. Paul leaves a little doubt as to what is required. “So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12b). We cannot continue to live as in the day of Noah and only be concerned about our pleasures and desires. We must live each day with a hopeful expectation and of receptivity to God’s coming.
The call to live a NEW WAY is not a call to gloom and doom. Rather, God is calling us to true joy and peace. Isaiah employs the image of “the Lord’s mountain” (Isaiah 2:3), a place of lasting peace and reconciliation. The division and hostilities which separate people will be healed. We know this is a hope and not a present reality. However, each day we are called to make the Lord’s mountain a little more visible on the horizon.
As we welcome the New Year in the liturgical cycle, we are to be watchful and be alert. It is the beginning of a new year filled with hope and expectation. Our God is throwing a party on his mountain. We are all invited. Let us with courage “walk in the light of the Lord!”