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Gospel commentary: First Sunday of Advent calls us to ‘stay awake’

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Gospel Commentary Mt 24:37-44

This Sunday begins the great season of Advent. Soon we will see the four-candle wreaths up in our churches, Jesse trees and chocolate-filled calendars in our homes. Already, the stores and shops are filled with Christmas music and decorations, and soon we’ll turn our attention to the feast of the Lord’s birth.

And yet, we would be mistaken simply to equate Advent with Christmas preparation. The season calls us to much more, and to recognize further-reaching spiritual realities. St. Bernard of Clarivaux, the great 12th-century monk, reminds us the full nature of the season. We know that the word “advent” comes from the Latin word “adventus,” or “arrival,” and St. Bernard delineates three arrivals of the Lord for which we must prepare. In a homily for the first Sunday of Advent, he says: “We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among men. … In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. The intermediate coming is a hidden one; in it only the elect see the Lord within their own selves, and they are saved.”

The Lord comes to us for the first time at his birth in Bethlehem on Christmas night, and for the last time at the end of history, when he will arrive as judge of the living and the dead. These two advents are clear enough. The Lord, however, has this middle advent as well. He comes to us in the present moment, especially through the sacraments. 

The Gospel the church gives us for the first Sunday of Advent draws our attention to that last coming of the Lord Jesus at the end of time. Christ commands us not to lose focus but to be prepared at every moment for the day when he will bring all things to a close. For us to be ready, as the Gospel commands us, means not only to be prepared for the peaceful light and quiet glory of Christmas, when the Lord comes to us in silence and humility, but also for the triumph and decision at the end of time, when the Lord will come to us in power and irresistible might. Even here, that middle advent has a place, and we will find that we must be ready to meet him also at each Mass, in every confession, tabernacle and moment of prayer.

Indeed, this preparation to meet Christ in his daily advents perhaps captures best what it means to “stay awake,” as the Gospel instructs us. We stay awake whenever we pay close attention to Mass, or whenever we prepare well to make a good confession. Each visit to a tabernacle, however brief, each reading of the Gospels, each recitation of the rosary, keeps us attentive to the arrival of the king. Whenever, even in the middle of a busy day, we turn our worry-clouded minds toward Christ’s presence in our souls, we are watching the door for his return.  

If we make a point this Advent, and all our lives, to meet Jesus in every place he comes to us, then the end of all things will simply be the fulfillment of the desire we have nurtured each day. Prepared in this way, we will not be shocked when our Christ returns, but already will be familiar with the sound of his feet and the tone of his voice.  

Fr. Rampino is chaplain at Marymount University in Arlington.

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