Young Woman Holding a Lamp, Gerard Dou Mauritshuis, Netherlands.
Isaiah 63:16-17,64:1-8, Mark 13:33-37
Advent is perhaps the most beautiful of the Church’s liturgical seasons. In the run up to Christmas, it disappears far too quickly sometimes, even before people become conscious of it. It has some of the most beautiful hymns and prayers in the Liturgy. It is in fact, a penitential season, signalled by the purple vestments of priests, like Lent. During both seasons, there is a focus on the waywardness of man, our sinfulness, repentance and a plea for mercy as can be seen in the reading from Isaiah. The penitence of Advent, however, has a different character to that of Lent. Lent has the feel of a ‘spiritual check-up’ of sorts, as we examine our spiritual life and our relationship to God and neighbour. By grace, we strive to make the changes needed to bring ourselves back on track, on the path of holiness. Advent, however, has a much more passive character. There is a recognition that there is very little that we can do to help ourselves. Our adversaries are too big for us. The difficulties we face are not simply problems with our neighbour or some sins we think we can overcome, but are much bigger, indeed, cosmic, in nature. Only God, and only if he wills, can set us free. He will have to show us mercy.
Advent’s announcement of hope, spiritual solace and special graces, it would seem, has far more to offer us this year. We’ve been dragged through a pandemic which still shows no signs of abating. It has brough about the biggest changes in non-war times. Some has been very painful, in the loss of jobs, deaths and sickness in the family, and financial uncertainty. On a more cosmic scale, a hundred years after the ‘war to end all wars’ (WW I), there are once again signs of trouble. There is the rise of authoritarian rulers across the world. The apocalyptic signs of the gospels (Mk 13:7-8) – the rhetoric of war, famines, plagues, natural disasters– are plainly visible again. Conspiracy theories abound. A ‘Great Reset’ – which sounds like another such theory – is actually being advanced at the World Economic Forum; it confirms that our life will change, so that there is no going back. Whether it will be for the good or for worse, waits to be seen.
The yearning of God’s people in Isaiah “Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down! – at your Presence the mountains would melt.” (Isa 64:1) is very much our cry, too.
Mountains cannot be easily tamed by man. They stand, impressive in their stature and stability. They do not afford easy pass to those who want to cross them. But the people of God always knew that God’s protection and glory, were ‘more majestic than the everlasting mountains’ (Ps 76:4). When God came down to meet his people, the mountains gave way. They trembled in his presence (Ps 18:7). Even while recognising their own sin and failure, the people of God could wait. God’s mercy would come at the right time, free them from their chains and their adversaries too big to overcome.
Even with the occurrence of these cataclysmic events though, the gospel has a more down-to-earth admonition. The people of God are urged to simply continue doing the work assigned to each of them. The master has gone away for now, but he has given a definite charge to his servants. This work, carried out faithfully by the servants – you and me, the Church – in his absence is essential. It does not matter whether it is small or great. It is mysteriously bringing about the Kingdom of God, through the power of the Spirit. The readings are wonderfully complementary. We are called to cry out to God, knowing that only he can and will save. At the same time, we are told to work, with confidence, knowing it makes a difference. But it seems so counter-intuitive. How can we continue working when everything seems to be breaking down? What difference, would it even make, the small things that we do – in our jobs, using our gifts, in our families, with loving and serving the people around us – when everything seems to be going wrong? The answer, would seem to lie with one peculiar character in the gospel: the doorkeeper.
The doorkeeper is the only one instructed to stay awake, so that the others, can do their tasks given them. Who is this doorkeeper and why is he entrusted with this special task, when the others are not? I would like to suggest, that this doorkeeper is the virtue of hope, so important at Advent. I tend to think that the doorman as analogous to the goalkeeper in football. He is not always ‘active’ like the other players, but he has to keep watching. In many ways, he has the most important job on the team. If the team has a good goal keeper, they can all do their part. They can go on the offense, without having to fear, they can be bold, take risks. They know that if all else fails and the ball gets past them, the goalkeeper will save it. In a similar way, the doorkeeper does not have an ‘active’ job, but his is the most important.
When this hope dies, however, the door swings wide open to anyone and anything entering our hearts. We lose our vision. Everything seems pointless. What’s the point being honest at work, when those who cheat prosper? Of going to such great lengths to bring up our children well, when they are being given counter-examples and even a counter-gospel everywhere else? Staying chaste as a young person, when everyone else seems happier living a ‘wild’ life? We can despair. Equally, we can take matters into our own hands, maybe in ways which would have made us ashamed, at other times.
When our doorkeeper is awake and functioning, we can go about our task without undue fear. The doorkeeper’s entire purpose is to do with the Master’s return. This is what he watches for, and waits. This is the basis of our hope. That the Master is coming back. This hope is a gift of the Spirit. It is infused at baptism, renewed by the asking. When this hope of Christ’s return is firmly fixed in our hearts, we can recognise the dangers that face us, but like in Isaiah, we can cry to God with confidence, rather than despair. We can be joyful, even in the midst of calamity, as our hope is not shaken. We can have direction, even as darkness surrounds us (CCC 1817-20).
There are things too big for us to change. We cannot free ourselves even from our own sins and addictions. We need a saviour. At Advent, the Church as a whole rises up to say to God – ‘Wake up! Tear open the heavens and come down! Set things right! Do not leave us to ourselves’. We wait with confidence for his final coming, in great power and glory. In the meantime, he does not leave us alone. He will come to us with joy, at Christmas. And every week, even if his glory be hidden, he comes with the same power to save those who cry to him, in the Eucharist.