Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 29)

“Be watchful and alert!” Jesus tells us as we begin the season of Advent. The call continues a similar message we’ve been hearing the past few weeks in the Scripture readings at Mass as we approached the end of the liturgical year. Advent provides us an opportunity to renew this aspect of our Christian discipleship.

We live in the “expectation” of the Lord’s return. This is part of our faith given us by Jesus himself. It involves a promise, the promise that he will come back and bring us with him to the Father in the heavenly kingdom. Jesus tells us several times in the Gospel, including today’s passage, that we do not know the day or the hour of his return, so he urges: “Be watchful and alert!”

Jesus uses the image of the man who leaves his servants in charge of his household while he is away. Everyone is to do their own work. Jesus then specifically mentions the gatekeeper who is ordered to be “on the watch.” Three aspects of this short story may help us to reflect on our journey of life: the gatekeeper, the servants and the timing.

The gatekeeper has an important role. He is the one who protects and guards the property and all who live on it. He is someone who greets and welcomes. He is someone who defends and protects. He needs to be wise to know the difference. He is one who calls out warning or danger. He is one who announces joy and homecoming. All these responsibilities benefit all in the household. In the context of Jesus’ story, the gatekeeper is the first one who will recognize the master’s return. He is the one who has to quickly alert the others so that the master can be greeted and welcomed in by all the family.

Depending on our situation in life we may have similar responsibilities to those of the gatekeeper. Clearly in the life of the family parents exercise this role for their children. With time, some of these responsibilities may fall to the children for their parents. In the context of our communion in the church, we all in varying degrees have the responsibilities of the gatekeeper in keeping watch.

The servants of the house likewise have an important role. The master entrusts them with his household: family, workers, property, livelihood and possessions. This is a pretty large and all-encompassing responsibility. Noteworthy is that the master of the household trusts his servants enough to give them this responsibility. He has confidence in them that they will be able to fulfill the duties and that they will follow through with this great responsibility. Each servant has his or her particular work.

In our lives, keeping watch for the master’s return means living good lives. Caring for others, doing our best with the responsibilities that have been given us, using the talents the Lord has given us for the benefit of all, sharing with others, seeking to help those in need, being compassionate and understanding, seeking and living by the truth are all part of living a good life no matter what our particular vocation or profession. These too, however, are important for they are gifts with responsibilities. Recognizing this and striving for excellence in these are also ways of keeping watch.

The timing of the master’s return is also important to the story and in our lives. The gatekeeper and servants do not know when the Master will return. They are encouraged to be vigilant, to be ready and to “watch.” Jesus says: “Watch, therefore; you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.” Since the timing is unknown a warning is also given: “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: “Watch!”

Our watching for the Lord’s return is one of joyful expectation. Toward the end of Advent we switch our focus to preparing for the celebration of Jesus’ first coming. This is done with much joy and celebration. We think of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and even the days that follow and for many they are filled with great delight and gladness. In our watchfulness for the Lord’s return, our preparations, our living well the lives that have been given us, our handling the stewardship that has been entrusted to us are to be done so with joyful anticipation and hope.

While we do not know the day or hour, we do know him who said he will return. He is trustworthy. He is faithful. He is true and he is able to do what he promises. He will come and so we can confidently live in the hope of his return, no matter when it will happen.

Advent has been called the Season of Hope — hope renewed in our longing for his return; hope fulfilled and celebrated as we move toward Christmas. Hope is needed today. Our culture has a hidden despair. Sometimes this manifests itself in the injustices and anxieties of the current day. In the last few decades, we’ve been hearing national and world leaders speaking of hope – and the need for it. Now within the pandemic we have an even greater need for hope.

Hope (along with faith and love) are not “magic words” that are said or professed and suddenly our whole outlook changes. No, it is something that is cultivated within oneself and within the community. The Season of Advent helps us to strengthen our hope that has as its bedrock and firm foundation, not an idea or ideal, but a person. Jesus Christ dead and risen is our hope. Preparing for his return awakens hope in us and moves us forward in joy and peace.

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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.