Sunday 3 December 2023 Advent 1
Comings and goings
Isaiah 64:1-8; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37
Context: breaking the Word for a small, gathered community in inner-city Liverpool, many of whom feel they live on the margins both of Church and of wider society
Aim: drawing on the scriptural reflections of Fr James Alison (‘Praying Eucharistically’) and the insights of Fr Tomas Halik into absence and paradox to affirm that amidst what feel like depletions or ‘goings’ there is the opportunity for a ‘coming’, the advent of a new moment in history
Firstly, let’s put this Gospel passage into its context. Chapter 13 of Mark’s Gospel is a response to a question about an apocalyptic future asked privately by two sets of brothers, Peter and Andrew and James and John (13:3), who are sat with Jesus on the Mount of Olives looking across to Jerusalem. Jesus starts preparing them (13:23) for the new normal, life after his death and resurrection, in which they could easily get distracted from ‘proclaiming the Good News’ (13:10).
This Gospel reading and Advent are about a coming – ‘the time will come’ (13:33) and ‘the Master of the House is coming’ 13:35 – which looks very much like a going! ‘A man travelling abroad… gone from home’ (13:34). There is an absence at the heart of the new normal, where the servants are left in charge, each with their own task. The coming time will be one of shared responsibility and authority with the great danger of being side-tracked from the main mission. Thankfully there is a doorkeeper (might we imagine Peter?) whose specific job is to ‘stay awake’. (This phrase occurs four times in the passage.)
In this story Jesus is setting the brothers up to face this reality which will be fraught with distractions and challenges. They are to be watchmen first, who don’t fall asleep on the job. And we know what they are about to undergo in real time. Jesus’ story continues with the coming of the Master, but he reveals particular concern about certain times, not morning, midday or afternoon but evening, midnight, cockcrow and dawn. Why these? In less than 48 hours the entire 12 will have lived through traumatic events at precisely those times.
Evening - the Last Supper; Midnight – Gethsemane; Cockcrow – High Priest’s House; Dawn – Pilate’s House. These places are suffused with tension, violence, false witnesses, fake meaning, and everyone falls asleep as it begins. If these times are crucial for a coming, they are also paradoxically a going, a departure of being, a leaving of existence which entails a ‘handing over’. At evening Jesus hands himself over to the disciples including Judas; at midnight Judas hands Jesus over to the mob; at cockcrow Peter hands him over in betrayal and at dawn the chief priests hand him over to Pilate and certain death.
They were pre-warned to ‘stay awake’ just hours before but they failed spectacularly, when the Master needed them most to be alert and understand what was going on. Jesus seems to have set them up to get it wrong, prepared them in advance for failure. It is this precise experience of weakness and failure from which they will learn eventually how to mercifully support us. And we need to identify the paradox that what appears to be a going, a leaving, a handing over, is also in fact a coming, an inbreaking of a new world order - from which we mustn’t be distracted.
This seems to be the heart of the advent ‘stay awake’ message. We mustn’t get distracted, look elsewhere, shift our gaze from the one thing that really matters. Worse still, we mustn’t grow drowsy and fall asleep, losing sight completely. Remaining awake only makes sense if there is a coming that we await, that we long for. But perhaps we also need to identify the going or handing over, that has taken place already and is still happening now.
We all know that there are situations where the truth is handed over to lies, where human beings are sacrificed on the altar of economic growth and fiscal responsibility, where basic healthcare declines whilst private providers move in to make profit, where the planet burns and floods yet politicians continue to prevaricate, where equality gains are challenged and even reversed while xenophobia and transphobia are on the increase, where culture wars hand over minority groups to a rampant media and political onslaught, where charity and compassion for refugees and asylum seekers collapses and their departure is literally called for, where public opinion is manipulated with fake news and false meaning so that no one knows any longer what is true and who can be trusted.
And there is much that distracts the Christian community from welcoming the coming in, cooperating with the inauguration of a new post-resurrection era where the Christ values of trust and truth, of vision and clarity, of courage and resistance are inbreaking into this world so easily distracted by violence, war, propaganda, false news and isolationism. So stay awake because you know this is the hour of creation’s completion and the inauguration of a new world order, starting with a birth in Bethlehem.
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