A reflection on the gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (Year B)
Dries van den Akker SJ
Mark 13: 33-37
1 Stay awake
It is the beginning of Advent. We look forward to the coming of Jesus into our world. As an illustration of this attitude, Jesus challenges us to ‘stay awake’. In the Bible translation that is read in the liturgy, we hear this phrase four times. In the Greek text it is mentioned three times. For in vs. 33 (the first verse of our reading) the Greek text does not give the word ‘stay awake’, but ‘don’t fall asleep’. Three or four times is meaningful for such a short part of Jesus’ speech.
This picture by Daumier could very well serve as an illustration to what Jesus means. Three Chinese men are depicted sleeping in an almost caricatural manner. Their hats tell us that they are wise men. (Jesus’ disciples are supposed to be wise men as well). But for the moment wisdom is sleeping. The floating vague lines (of consciousness?) in the background are continued in their clothes.
Stay awake. That is imagery. What is meant by ‘stay awake’? The phrase evokes the darkness of the night. This seems to be confirmed by the periods of the nightwatch that Jesus lists a bit further on. The Romans knew four different times of the nightwatch. 1. The evening (from 6 till 9 pm); 2. the night (from 9 till midnight); 3. cock-crow (from midnight till 3 am); 4 dawn (from 3am till 6 am). Jesus lists them precisely (vs.35): ‘evening, midnight, cockcrow or dawn.’ So Jesus compares the everyday lives of his disciples in the future to the darkness of the night. As we do too, when we compare the coming of Christ in Christmas Night to the coming of the light in the darkest period of the year.
We find the reason for such a comparison in the remaining text of the 13th chapter of Mark, which precedes our text of today. And there we’ll also find the answer to our question, ‘What does Jesus mean by ‘stay awake’?’
2 How to keep yourself upright?
The reason that Jesus compares the future lives of his disciples to ‘staying awake in the darkness’ is a remark made by his disciples, while they are looking at the beauty of the Temple. Jesus is there with Peter, James, John and Andrew. The very four disciples Jesus called in the beginning of his public life (Mark 1:16-20). The only time after that moment when he is together with the same four, just as at the beginning. They are the only ones who witnessed all that Jesus said and did. Jesus predicts that all that beauty they are looking at, will be destroyed.
Jesus with the four disciples of the beginning. Looking at the beauty of the temple; saying ‘Not a single stone will be left upon another; everything will be pulled down.'
The disciples ask when that will happen (Mark 13: 4). Jesus doesn’t answer their question. But he does answer the question that is the question of the whole Bible, ‘How do you keep yourself upright in similar circumstances?’ So he says, ‘Take care – the Greek text reads ‘look’ – that no one deceives you.’
What else can that mean but that they have to practise what Jesus has taught them from the beginning? Charity, love, forgiveness, even in these exceptional circumstances. Exceptional? On the contrary. These exceptional circumstances happen at all times. That is what Jesus makes increasingly clear during his speech.
First there will be others who will claim to be the Messiah (13:6, 21-22). Don’t believe them. Secondly, there will be wars, earthquakes, famines... (13: 7-8). You will be persecuted, even by your own families (13:11-12). All these things will happen. Take care. Hold on to my commandments. People are not meant to be condemned, even when their troubles are the consequences of their own faults. No, people are meant to be forgiven and to be saved. So among all these possible disasters you will be a light in the darkness. You will be witnesses that there are other possibilities, and moreover: that these other possibilities are about to come. Just as I was during my lifetime.
Following Jesus’ way of life when surrounded by threats and in the most difficult and darkest circumstances: in other words, ‘stay awake’.
In his words, Jesus seems to predict all the disasters that will come over us, like a threat. But that is contrary to what he means to say. When we reflect on his life, it is hard to believe that he – at the end of his mission – would threaten us, or fill us with fear. Instead, he is very realistic. And what he is doing in his speech: is – as it were – to read the newspapers every day. The disasters he lists: indeed, they are there, somewhere among the peoples on earth, almost every day. And he shows his disciples (us!?) how to survive in the midst of these events as good, reliable people.
We know that Mark writes his gospel around the year 70 AD. When we read Jesus’ description of ‘the appalling abomination’ (13:14ff.), he seems to predict the fall and destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD. Some scholars accept that Mark was aware of this event when he wrote his gospel. That must have influenced his description of the destruction of Jerusalem (13:14-18). Others dispute it.
After Titus’ conquest of Jerusalem (70 AD), the treasures of the temple in Jerusalem (menorah, seven-branched candle) are triumphantly taken to Rome.
Anyway, most of the disasters Jesus lists had already taken place in the period between the moment that Jesus went to heaven and the writing of Mark’s gospel. There had been persecutions; there had been wars; there had been disciples who had been arrested and killed (James, Stephen).
So, Jesus is not giving a threat, on the contrary. He advises us how to find a way out, the way out. Don’t believe those who are saying, ‘I am Christ!’ Don’t seek a way out elsewhere. You are carrying it in your hearts. Hold on to His commandments; follow His way of life. Hoping, believing that there will be better times. More than that: believing that the disasters of today are the announcers of a better future (13:28-32).
Finally, the disasters get the cosmic proportions of the end of times. Then Jesus will return as king of the universe. But nobody knows when that shall happen.
And so, at the end, Jesus answers the question of his disciples, ‘When will it happen?’ On the one hand, destructions and disasters are of all times. On the other, definite salvation shall be at the end, but of that time nobody knows (13:32.35). In the meantime: ‘Stay awake’.
In the Greek text of our reading, Jesus says ‘stay awake’ three times. It is almost shocking to realise that one chapter later these three warnings are repeated. But then in a very concrete situation, a situation of fear and anguish.
33 Then he took Peter and James and John with him.
34 And he began to feel terror and anguish.
And he said to them, 'My soul is sorrowful to the point of death.
Wait here, and stay awake.'
35 And going on a little further he threw himself on the ground and prayed
that, if it were possible, this hour might pass him by.
36 'Abba, Father!' he said, 'For you everything is possible.
Take this cup away from me. But let it be as you, not I, would have it.'
37 He came back and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter,
'Simon, are you asleep? Had you not the strength to stay awake one hour?
38 Stay awake and pray not to be put to the test.
The spirit is willing enough, but human nature is weak.'
As I understand Jesus’ prayer, He is tempted to give in to the terror and anguish. That should be ‘being asleep’. But saying (and acting upon it!), ‘Not my will, but yours should be done’, that is staying awake. And what is God’s will? That Jesus should die? I cannot believe it. Why would a God of love and charity want his son to die?
I suppose that doing God’s will is providing charity and love, even in that moment of terror and anguish. So Jesus acts just as he prayed, when he heals the ear of one of his attackers; when he emphasizes that he is the Messiah, even before seventy men who are threatening him (14:62). According to Saint Luke, Jesus prayed on the cross for all those who rejected and murdered him: ‘Father, forgive them...’ (23,34). That is what he was praying for in Gethsemane: to do God’s will. Showing charity and love, even in these extreme situations. That is staying awake.
Jesus - in a threatening situation (in the background, those who come to arrest him, are approaching!) - is urging his sleeping disciples to stay awake.
So, on the first Sunday of Advent we are invited to look forward to the coming of Jesus. Not only in the cradle, also on the cross. And to notice that cradle and cross both speak of charity and love. We are invited to live the charity and love where we are, in our lifetime. Staying awake.
5. Servants in charge
Back to this Sunday’s reading. For there is a little parable in it that answers one of the most frequent questions among Christians especially in painful circumstances, ‘Where is God?’
Jesus compares the apparent absence of God with a man traveling abroad. He does so several times in the Gospels. For example, in the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-27). He himself is ‘abroad’, but he is present in the talents that he trusted his servants with. Or in the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard. There ‘the man went abroad for a long time’, but he is meant to be present in the fruits of the vineyard (Luke 20:09). That is imagery of the characteristics of God: charity, love, forgiveness. So God is ‘abroad’. Is ‘abroad’ an image for ‘in heaven’?
God seems to be absent, but he entrusted his presence into the hands of his ‘servants’. When they do what He commanded them to do, He is present in our world. That is not only an enormous responsibility for his disciples (for us), but also a great sign of trust. God wants to be present in our world, but not without our cooperation. So, when we have reason to ask, ‘Where is God now?’ The answer is, ‘in us as persons’, ‘in our attitude’: providing we do what He would have done if He were on the spot. In the language of today’s reading: God is present if we ‘stay awake’.
But isn’t it too easy for God to be in His heaven, while He lets us, every day, struggle and wrestle with the complexity of life?
In this light, this reading is very well chosen for the first Sunday of Advent. Why? For in Advent we look forward to the miracle that God will come to accompany us in our struggle. He doesn’t stay far away in His heaven. God comes into our midst as a human being, to share our lives, and to show us the way by living and dying as we do. He himself becomes a servant in charge.
In their prayer the believers remember what the Lord was asking of them. The gentleman practices what he was praying by doing charity. He represents the presence of God.