‘Tis the season – for becoming a sentinel.
Amid the hype of the holidays, the liturgical message that recurs at this time of year comes through in a single word: “Watch!”
With this imperative, Jesus exhorts his followers in the Gospel of Mark that is read on the first Sunday of Advent: “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming … What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch’!” (Mark 13:37).
What Jesus says is more than “wait and see” – as if simply having eyes wide open were enough. What he means is more than “pay attention” – as if only to avoid the element of surprise.
To watch is to look out for, to be vigilant in trying to see what (or who) is out there. Ask a Marine what it means to “keep watch” and you’ll learn that it can be an arduous task, especially on post during a cold and dark winter’s night.
The enemy of such watchfulness is ennui, that feeling of listlessness that comes from a lack of activity or excitement. It’s a sleepiness that yawns upon us when nothing is happening. But it can also overtake us even when we’re fully awake.
Minds get tired from the myriad of thoughts racing through them, so much so that we can’t seem to focus. Hearts grow weary with anxious concern about loved ones and worries about things we cannot control. Souls can be fatigued, when the endless routines of life keep us in a rut and sap the joy of a new day.
“Watch!” says the Lord, for God knows that human nature is prone to drift off or drift away, that the ways of this world can darken the prospects of hope and turn cold the reasons for joy.
But Someone is coming. To be mindful of that is what the Advent season beckons. And now we have special calendars to help us keep on track.
Advent calendars count the days of December in anticipation of Christmas. Crafty construction allows the user to open a “window” or a box each day to receive a gift. Digital designs use barcodes or push the daily delight to your device in the form of badges, banners, or other notifications.
Religious versions of these calendars traditionally include readings, prayers, or good thoughts for each of the 24 days. Non-religious versions now abound.
Children can create and color their own. Adults can pass the time by indulging in a dram of whiskey a day. Capitalizing on the growing popularity of these calendars, all sorts of business are getting into the act with online calendars to market various products.
But consumer countdowns miss the mark. They may build anticipation, and present gifts along the way, but they don’t aid us to keep watch. The dark chocolate ones may even make us sleepier.
To build vigilance during Advent, we should take a cue, instead, from positive psychology. In a TED talk viewed by more than 16 million people, Shawn Achor introduces the science to happiness. He shows that finding three new things to be thankful for each day for 21 straight days actually re-wires the way we think. How? “By actively finding ways to practice gratitude, joy and social connection, our brains will retain a pattern of scanning the world for the positive first rather than the negative.”
In more biblical language, keeping watch or being on the lookout for the positive presence of the divine leads us to the joyful experience of seeing God in all things. It actively finds ways in which God comes into our world, as God once did in a stable in Bethlehem and will do again in glory with salvation for all who believe.
Advent can serve as our calendar for re-wiring our minds and hearts and souls. Mark these days with ways that you actively watch for and see God at work in your daily life. Write them down. Snap a photo on your phone. Share them with family and friends.
Become a sentinel of the supernatural in this season, and your Christmas will undoubtedly be happier and holier.
Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.