Last summer, while on vacation, I stayed at a hotel that allowed pets. At the time I made the reservations I didn’t realize that pets were allowed, and I was surprised to see dogs wandering the hallways. One dog, in particular, caught my attention. It was a small dog that looked vaguely like a Boston terrier, and was quite old.
The dog attracted my attention because of its unusual behavior. On several occasions I saw the dog with its face pressed into walls or other stationary objects. This didn’t make sense to me until I realized that the dog was blind. It couldn’t see where it was going. After a few more random observations I realized why it continued to walk into walls and other objects. The poor animal not only had to deal with its own disability but also with the liabilities of its owner. The owner was a tall man, with large feet; he couldn’t see the little dog very well, and regularly stepped on it. The dog walked into walls and doors in an attempt to stay out from under the owner’s feet.
I know I shouldn’t have laughed about this, but I couldn’t help it. For the remainder of my stay I had to avoid that man and his dog; I didn’t want to be seen laughing each time I walked past them. Watchfulness is a useful strategy for avoiding trouble. That poor little dog couldn’t watch for its owner’s feet because it was blind; it spent its life in anxious expectation of being stepped on by the same person who fed it. It did its best to avoid making its life worse.
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus cautions his disciples always to be on the watch. He said, “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) The “time” about which he warned his disciples was the arrival of God’s Messiah.
Mark’s Gospel was written at a time when the disciples of Jesus were coming to terms with the delay of Jesus’ glorious return. During his ministry he spoke to his disciples about the Last Judgment, the resurrection of the just and the “coming of the Son of Man.” (Mark 13:26) His disciples expected that, after his death and Resurrection, he would return promptly to judge the world.
Jesus did not return quickly, however, and by the time Mark’s Gospel was written his disciples were realizing that his return might be delayed indefinitely. As a consequence, Jesus’ warning about watchfulness took on a two-fold meaning. It came to be understood as a reference to both the need for persevering in faith in this life as well as the need to be prepared for the Lord’s return.
I’ve heard Advent described as a season of patient waiting. We have no choice but to wait for Christmas; it’s not here yet. Neither do we have a choice about waiting for the Lord’s return; only God the Father knows that day and hour. (Mark 13:32) The “waiting” aspect of Advent is obvious. However, should we wait ‘patiently’? I’m not convinced that Advent should be a season of passivity.
Jesus’ warning to his disciples has the sound of urgency. In this short passage he told his disciples three times to “Watch!” We must wait for the coming of the Son of Man, but I don’t think the Lord would have us be passive. Rather, there is important work to be done in the interim, until he comes. Watchfulness neither requires nor benefits from passivity.
It’s very popular to complain about the increased degree of activity during this time of year. We have to rush to prepare a Thanksgiving meal. We rush to the mall to do Christmas shopping. We rush from house to house of friends and relatives for holiday visits. It can be exhausting, but perhaps it can also be a good metaphor to describe our wait for the Lord’s return.
While we wait for the Day of the Lord we are in need of repentance, and we shouldn’t put that off until the last minute. The Lords’ delay in returning is an opportunity for us to rush to repentance, and thereby not be caught off-guard. While we wait for the Day of Judgment we have time enough to rush to make amends with those whom we’ve hurt; that is something that shouldn’t be put off any longer. We should take this opportunity to proclaim urgently the message of the Lord’s coming, in order that all might hear the Gospel and come to believe. The hustle and bustle of this time of year might not be such a bad thing – if we let it remind us of the need to busy about the Lord’s work until he returns.
Watchfulness is the theme of this Sunday’s Gospel for an obvious reason. The life of faith can be like that little dog’s life: we can’t always see what’s coming our way. We do not know the day of the Lord’s return; at times, we can’t even foresee the next event in our lives. Watchfulness for the coming of the Son of Man will keep us from falling into complacency or giving in to fear about the future. By keeping watch for the Lord’s return we can live in hopeful expectation.