November 27, 2016
First Sunday of Advent, Year A
On this first Sunday of Advent we begin a new liturgical year, when we will be accompanied by the reading of the Gospel of Matthew.
The passage we have heard today is taken from the twenty-fourth chapter, and is at the heart of the great eschatological discourse of Jesus, the last of five discourses present in Matthew, that directly precedes the account of the Passion.
The Liturgy offers us this passage precisely to introduce us to the time of Advent, a time that directs our attention to the coming of the Lord.
The Lord comes: the Church at this time, while making us remember the first coming, calls us to lift up our eyes to the second coming, which will fulfill time and history.
It is therefore a time of hope, of expectation, of vigilance: over and over we will hear the invitation to watch, during these Sundays.
As of today we hear it, on the lips of Jesus: “Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. ” (Mt 24:42).
Jesus repeats this phrase whenever he talks about his return, every time someone asks him about the end times: no one knows when this will happen. At times he will say that not even the angels know it, and that not even He knows it, because the times belong to the Father alone (Mt 24:36).
In a word, Jesus tells us that it is not for us to know the times, and not to get worked up about the point, but to live this time of waiting in the right way. In this regard, it is apparently paradoxical as we read in the concluding verses of our passage (42-44). Jesus says that if the householder had known when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake; He adds that we do not know when the Lord will come; and He concludes by saying: “Then stay awake!” The conclusion seems to conflict with what precedes it, because staying awake would seem connected to knowing the times. But is not so. We stay awake not that we know the times, but because we know that his coming is certain, as that of the thief; and that His times, like that of the thief, are unpredictable.
Staying awake is the right attitude of one who does not know the times: if I knew at what time a guest is coming, I would not have to watch for long, it would not be necessary to be ready for a long time prior to his arrival. It would be enough to prepare everything at the last minute; it would not be necessary that the entire time becomes a wait. But, precisely, because the guest can come at any moment, we must always be ready to welcome him.
But how is it possible to watch like this, to be always on the alert, without ever letting down your guard?
In explaining to us what it means to watch, Jesus gives an example: before the flood, while Noah was building his ark, all the others continued to do what they had always done, “and did not notice anything” (v. 39). Nobody expected anything, and so no one noticed anything. They continued to eat and drink, to take wives and husbands, and this was definitely not a bad thing! The Gospel of Matthew is very attentive to doing and, when he can, he reminds us that “not everyone who say “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of the Father” (Mt 7, 21); alternatively, that at the final judgment we will be judged not by our good thoughts, but by the works we have done with love for those near us (Mt 25:31 ff).
Waiting does not mean to stop doing the business of life, but to be alert to it, to our doing. Not to be studying the times of his return, but to give importance to the time we have available.
In short, we prepare ourselves for the coming, not calculating the times, but by a life of constant vigilance.
And it is necessary to watch over our lives so we can learn the art of such vigilance (v.39), the art of paying attention: we all do the same things, but what makes the difference is that someone lives as if this was all, and someone else looks at everything around him. It is not the difference of work or life situations that will cause the separation one from another but the difference in the attitude of vigilance: “Then two men will be out in the field: one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one will be left” (40-41).
Christian vigilance is the art of discerning the signs of the times, which means: having the responsibility of paying personal attention to understanding where these signs come from to make the human history that we are living coincide with the plan of God, His kingdom. We must learn to be patient, to trust God, to know how to find the good, in looking at history, however painful it may be, as a possibility given to our will to bless, to do, to act rightly.
Jesus, therefore, reminds us in this regard that Noah, in contrast to the humanity of his time, awaiting salvation, realized that within all the evil that was raging, the Lord was opening a road of life.
In conclusion, we must learn to pay attention, to notice that the Lord saves, and observe how and when this happens, within life, in our works.
And it is an attention that we learn by acting, doing: the Gospel reminds us of it, presenting us only persons that do something: the people in Noah’s time, but also the two men in the field and the two women at the mill; and likewise the master of the house.
Therefore, waiting is to do the same acts all people are doing and we do always, but making sure that these works have the style of the saved: they call to mind and reveal the salvation that we have already experienced and that which still lies ahead.
For this reason, the “just” are the model for those who are waiting (who will later be the “saved”) described in Matthew 25, which is the conclusion of today’s Gospel passage: they used to give to eat, drink, welcome, clothe and visit, because they were aware of the needs of those who stood beside them. And great will be their surprise, when the Lord comes in his glory, in seeing that their salvation has passed from these. They will be aware of having stayed awake.
Training ourselves to attentiveness and therefore to mercy, we will be – unconsciously – ready when the Lord comes.