The Franklin Expedition is one of the great tragedies in human exploration. Named for its captain, Sir John Franklin, the expedition set sail in 1845 to chart the Northwest Passage around the Canadian Arctic to the Pacific Ocean. Two ships and 134 crew members set sail, taking with them a 1,200 volume library, china place settings for the officers and men, fine glass goblets and sterling silver flatware.
Unfortunately, the fineries of life did not prepare the crew for what they would face in the Arctic. Freezing temperatures, severe wind and waters frozen into ice awaited the ships. For a journey that was to last for two to three years, the captain had loaded only a twelve-day supply of coal for the auxiliary steam engines. The crew brought only their naval uniforms, which were not suited for cold weather.
Soon after arriving in the Arctic, the ships were encased in ice, which covered the decks and then froze around the rudders. With their vessels trapped, the crew died from exposure to the harsh winds and sub-freezing temperatures.
The story reminds us of the need for being properly prepared. The season of Advent, which we begin today, involves preparation. St. Bernard describes three “comings” of Jesus for which we prepare during this time.
The first coming of Jesus was when he was born among us. During Advent, we prepare for the annual celebration of his nativity at Christmas.
The second coming or parousia is at the end of the world. Jesus promised he would return. At that time, the bodies of the dead will be raised and glorified. Death will be destroyed and evil will be vanquished. During the first few weeks of Advent, our preparation for this coming involves our vigilance.
The third coming of Jesus is his regular and repeated coming into our hearts daily. The preparation for this coming involves opening all aspects of our lives to the light of Christ. He is the light that dispels darkness and fills us with life. And so participation in the season of Advent entails our preparation for the coming of the Lord.
The Gospel passage for today’s liturgy recalls Jesus speaking to his disciples about the end times. He urges them to be vigilant: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”
Jesus uses the example of the gatekeeper waiting for the Lord’s return. The gatekeeper will have to take extra steps to ensure he is awake on that night watch. He will probably have to get some sleep during the day. He will need to have his food prepared and ready (since there was no electricity back then, there was no easy way to get light, save for starting a fire). The gatekeeper will need to be alert so he can recognize and greet the master when he arrives.
The first reading, from the prophet Isaiah, expresses the longing of human hearts for God. In this case, the longing is expressed in a desire for his return. “You, Lord, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever …Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.” The prophet then goes on to describe a people who have sinned and turned away from the Lord. The prayer and longing is that God the loving father will heal our infirmities and sinfulness by molding us and shaping us into the people he calls us to be – as a potter molds clay.
The season of Advent affords us the opportunity to prepare for the Lord’s coming. Our preparation involves prayer and charity. It is good to take concrete steps during the season. For example, you can sign up for Dynamic Catholic’s “Best Advent Ever” series, which offers for daily emails with short video stories on practical ways to observe Advent (www.bestadventever.com). Daily Mass at your local parish is always a great opportunity to encounter the Lord and to be strengthened in hope. Devotionals like the rosary, Divine Mercy chaplet or the Miraculous Medal novena are other ways. Lectio divina or meditation on the daily Scripture readings are also good ways to prepare.
Choosing one or two specific and concrete ways to observe Advent helps to heighten our vigilance, and gets us prepared to welcome the Lord when he returns.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.