James lived in Washington State. He grew up in the forest and was well accustomed to the trees and the logging industry. His parents instilled in him a good work ethic and he was diligent in his pursuits. When it came time for him to find a job, he sought work as a logger. Rather than an interview the foreman said to him, “Let’s see how you fell this tree.” James went to work and deftly took the tree down. The foreman was impressed and offered a job on the spot: “You begin on Monday.” James showed up on Monday ready to work. He worked diligently.
He thought things were going well until Thursday when the foreman said, “You can pick up your check at the end of the day.” James was surprised and asked, “Why are you letting me go?” The foreman replied: “You did great on Monday but each successive day your output has dwindled.” James said: “I’ve been working hard all week. I am the first to arrive and the last to leave. I do not even take coffee breaks.”
Recognizing his integrity the foreman said: “Let me see your ax.” He looked at the well-used ax and said: “I see this blade is dull. Have you been sharpening your ax?” “I have not had time because I’ve been working so hard.” “Well,” the foreman replied, “if you took some time to prepare, your output would be much stronger. I’ll give you another week but if you do not stay on top of this I’ll have to let you go.”
James got so caught up in the busy-ness of his pursuit that he forgot one of the most basic principles of his job – keeping the ax blade sharp. While he worked hard, and was sincere in his efforts, the results became weak and flat because he was not prepared.
Today we begin the new liturgical year and the season of Advent. Preparation is an important theme that runs through the season. Preparation for Christmas readily comes to mind with all the reminders from the secular world. However, this preparation takes focus during the later days of Advent. In the beginning of Advent we heighten our vigilance for Jesus’ second coming.
Preparation for this coming needs to be persistent and ongoing for we do not know the day or the hour of his return. His abiding presence among us is the greatest help in this preparation. Allowing the Lord, present in us through his Spirit, to speak to our hearts and to lead us on the way will help us keep vigil and be prepared.
Jesus’ message in the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy speaks of the need for vigilance. “Be watchful! Be alert!” he says. He uses the example of servants who are charged with guarding the gate while the master is away.
While today we have all sorts of technological security systems that handle this type of thing, we can easily understand how challenging it would be to stay awake all night and be alert. Anyone who has had to work the “graveyard shift” can relate to this situation. As the night progresses and all is quiet it is easy to start to doze off. The problem, of course, is that the guard or watchman does not know when the master will return. The solution, just as obvious, is to stay alert, stay awake. In Jesus’ words: “Watch!”
The theme of vigilance is also reflected in the first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. Tied to the vigilance is the longing for the Lord’s return. There is an earnest and heartfelt desire for the Lord to be present to the people and to deliver them from their sinfulness. “Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage. Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old.”
Isaiah, on behalf of the people, expresses the desire for God to come to them so that they might be freed from sin. He says: “Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people, all our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” At the same time Isaiah recognizes the Lord’s power to forgive, to heal and to strengthen his people as he says: “Yet, O Lord, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”
The coming Isaiah longed for was realized in Jesus. The Son of God took flesh, became incarnate, became one of us and walked with us in the journey of life. What’s more is that he gave completely of himself in suffering and death that we might live forever with him and in him.
St. Paul reminds us in the passage from First Corinthians that because we are one with Christ, his grace abounds. Paul tells us that this grace enriches us “so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, God himself through his Son gives us the “tools” of vigilance, the tools of preparation. We have spiritual gifts at our disposal. In this way “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Advent is a time of preparation and vigilance. The season can sometimes be obscured by the celebrations of the season. While so much good comes from the activities associated with Christmas — gift giving, charitable activities, sharing friendship and fellowship, decorating and so forth — the abundance of these activities can, for a lot of people, be overwhelming. Advent however provides a different type of preparation, one that goes deep into our hearts. A preparation that involves listening to God’s Word and responding wholeheartedly; allowing him into the dark places of our lives so that his light can heal and transform; opening our eyes to see the bounty of God’s goodness already present in our lives and to give thanks; a call to worship God in praise of his greatness and merciful love.
In the story mentioned above, James was a hard worker, sincere and diligent. The one thing he wasn’t was prepared. Although he could do some good, his output diminished as time went on because he wasn’t prepared. Advent provides us a time to prepare, to keep vigil, to “Watch!” And so we pray: “Grant your faithful, we pray, almighty God, the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at his coming, so that, gathered at his right hand, they may be worthy to possess the heavenly kingdom. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, you Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” (Collect, First Sunday of Advent)
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Morrisville.