Thought for the week - 3 December 2023
You can’t escape the symbolism of watching in Advent, can you? From the purple of the vestments reminding us of the dark before the dawn and our role as Watchmen, waiting for the return of Christ, to the lighting of the candles to illumine our search, and the beautiful poetry of the Preface these next two weeks ‘we who watch for the day may inherit the great hope’ and indeed the constant reminders to watch in the Advent hymns and todays Gospel - Jesus takes watching very seriously. In today’s Gospel reading, He tells us four times to watch. Are you watching yet! What do you watch normally? Kettles and paint are oft quoted allegories of watchfulness and the futility of it, although I don’t suppose anyone actually does watch paint dry or watch a kettle, it’s just a story to remind us to get on with other things while that which we cannot control finishes itself. Maybe we watch TV, I don’t because whenever I go to someone’s house and the TV is on, I sit there wondering why anyone would watch it. We watch things online I suppose and all this adds to the remarkably short attention span that so many people have now. Maybe there should be a reality TV show about watching paint dry, just to try and encourage people to calm down.
Watching lots of TV and looking at the internet changes us. Of the many ways they affect us, one particular way is keeping us awake. It’s generally considered to be a bad idea to watch TV or use your device in bed because sleep is important and is quite my favourite thing, so I don’t want to waste the opportunity to indulge in it!
In today’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about watching, he’s clearly not talking about watching Celebrity Masterchef or the biased drivel that passes for News reporting, but all the same, we need something to help us stay awake and be ready for his second coming and if He comes again and we are having an argument on Twitter or mocking someone’s dinner on Facebook and don’t notice because we are having such a fantastic time doing so, I don’t think we will have understood todays Gospel as well as we might . As we read on in Mark’s Gospel, we discover that his disciples really aren’t ready and to be honest nor are we, even with our splendid purple vestments, colour coordinated candles and lovely warm church. The next time Jesus talks about watching, he’s in Gethsemane. He knows that in a few hours he’s going to suffer a horrible death. He expresses his deep anxiety to his closest friends and asks them to watch – and they fall asleep, which is only just about better than saying ‘sorry, I can’t stay with you because I’m posting on Instagram’.
At the cockcrow, when Peter should have been watching, he’s cursing and denying he ever knew Jesus. Peter, as good as he is, is simply unable to obey Jesus’s request, he’s made a mess of this as well, and he didn’t even have hymns about being awake to sing. The watching that we are to do is about putting things aside to concentrate on what really matters, because we show our priorities in what we do, and we are meant to be watchmen, looking to the dawn, seeking the coming of the light, our minds fixed on that one thing above all else – it doesn’t mean we can’t do anything else, of course we can and should, but this is our primary calling, the thing we should be doing a lot of. Watching. Waiting. Looking for Jesus above the storms and dangers of this life. And we need His help, we need His grace to do that. So we watch and we pray. We pray that we may be able to watch.
The prophet Isaiah expresses the desperate predicament of mankind when he speaks to God: ‘There is no one that calls upon your name, that bestirs himself to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.’ Isaiah pleads with God ‘we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Be not angry, O Lord, and remember not our iniquity for ever.’ Isaiah’s prayer is answered in Christ’s Passion. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross we can be vigilant and watchful for the day of his coming. Because He loves us, we will recognise the signs of His presence and His Kingdom, and because He loves us, we will know where to seek Him. We will know how to watch, because the one we are looking for loves us and we love Him. It’s a big job, but it’s not actually difficult.
In his first letter, St Peter – who was just busy denying Christ and hiding from Him - writes ‘Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.’ We now have the power to be watchful and resist the assaults of Satan. Like Peter, we have learned something and Advent teaches it to us in abundance – the devil is encouraging us not to watch, not to look for Him, the devil encourages us to sleep and to forget about God, so resist the devil and seek the light of the world, lest the world sink ever more into darkness. Be a watchman, but also be a light so our brother and sister watchmen see they are not alone, especially in places where they are afraid. Christ’s first coming points to his second coming. In the gloom of winter, we are reminded that Christ came into our dark world and died for us, and this moment marks the turning point. The sun will rise again and we will see beyond the darkness and recognise the hope that warms our hearts and lights up our minds. He is coming. Keep faithful, keep watching.