Dear People of God,
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Today marks the beginning of a new year for many Christians. The First Sunday of Advent is the first day of our liturgical year. I have spent many hours, and will probably spend many more, thinking about what it means to start a new year with roughly four weeks dedicated to waiting. Can you imagine a race where the starting pistol is fired and all of the runners simply stand at the line for a minute before taking off? Fortunately, our lives in Christ are not a competition and Advent, while it is about waiting, is not about being idle.
Advent is full of traditions which are ways to mark the time waiting. We light candles on Advent wreaths to mark the weeks of the season. We have Advent calendars which hold verses of scripture, prayers, toys, and candy to mark the days of the season. We have rhythms of baking and cooking for which are, in part, preparation for Christmastide celebrations. We mark the time as we wait and watch and work.
Today’s gospel passage begins with Jesus addressing the disciples who are being given instructions about what to wait for. There is a list of signs that will tell them that the Son of Man is coming, which means that the disciples must be waiting for his appearance. However, in spite of waiting and being given a list of signs, Jesus assures the disciples that they cannot be sure as to when the Son of Man will appear. The Son of Man is, of course, Christ and the disciples are called to wait but must be vigilant in watching for those signs and for this appearance. They are called to wait and to watch.
The coming of Christ is not something by which one wants to be caught unaware. No, this moment will be one of the most important moments and needs to be attended with great care. The disciples are given a list of signs and have beeninstructed to watch carefully for the coming of Christ. So far, so good.
Watching, as it is used in scripture, is a more complicated thing than we might first think as English speakers. We watch television, we watch football games, we even talk about watching paint dry. We think of watching as the sense connected to our eyes. In the language of scripture, watching certainly includes this sense of seeing with one’s eyes, but it also often carries a broader sense of watchfulness. To be aware, not only physically, but intellectually and spiritually of what is happening in and around one’s self. Perhaps the closest English equivalent is when someone says “Watch yourself!” This might be a warning about a dangerous physical situation, like shuffling backward toward a step, or another kind of dangerous situation, like unwittingly venturing into inappropriate territory in a conversation. Watch yourself!
In the language of scripture, to keep awake and stay watchful means to not fall asleep and to pay attention to what one sees, but it is also a call to think carefully with both mind and heart about what it is that one perceives. It is not enough to see and note that a houseplant is turning brown and dry. To watch, in the sense of scripture, one must think about what that means. Too much water, not enough water, perhaps the wrong lighting is affecting the plant. It is not enough to see and note a person weeping. To watch, one must think about that person and what causes their weeping. Are they hurt? Mourning? Lost? Despairing? It is not enough to see and note that a certain group of people are shunned. To truly watch, one must think on those people and why they are shunned. Is their skin the wrong colour? Their accent hard to understand? Do they love the wrong people? Are they dressed the wrong way? Are they poor and make others uncomfortable by their very presence, reminding us of our failure to love our neighbours as ourselves?
And here we see the cost of this work which Jesus gives to the disciples. To wait is simple enough, but to watch is hard work. To truly watch means not only to see but to consider critically and prayerfully what it is that one sees and to compare it to the way of life that Christ has given to us. The cost comes when we are watching and see something which is not as it ought to be. When we see our friends who are hungry, we can no longer simply watch. We are called by Christ—the one whose coming we anticipate in this Advent season—to reach out and feed the hungry, to comfort the mourning, to care for Creation, and to draw in the shunned and forgotten. The call to watch is also a call to the hard work of life in Christ.
As we watch for Christ’s coming we are called to show others what it means to be so near to the Kingdom of God. We pass on the signs that we know and the wisdom and revelations we have been given so that others might know and we do so in word and action. Each time we light a candle in the Advent wreath, we are called to remember that we bear the Light of Christ in the world. With the cooking and baking we prepare, we are called to remember that the host of every Christian table is Christ and that it is Christ’s wish that none go hungry. As we wait and watch we must also work to show others the glory of that for which we wait.
This Advent season, wait with expectation both for our remembering the first coming at Christmas and with anticipation of the second coming. Watch with all of your senses, with your mind, and with your heart both for signs of the coming Christ and for those times and places where you are called to be Christ to others. And as you wait and watch, rise to God’s call to work for the building of the Kingdom, for the telling of God’s glory to the world, for the bearing of the Light of Christ into dark places. Soon the eternal, uncreated light will fill all of Creation; until then we are called to wait for it, to watch where it is needed, and to work as its bearers.
Wishing you a most holy Advent.
Yours in Christ,
The Rev. Andrew Rampton
This letter was written for the Parish of Holy Trinity, Winnipeg.