First Sunday of Advent – Year B


Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7
Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19
1 Cor 1:3-9
Mk 13:33-37

Imagine being wheeled into an operating room for an organ transplant. The anaesthesia is quickly taking effect, colors are blurring, voices are muffled, everything seems far away. And just before you go under, the surgeon leans over and whispers in your ear, “Don’t worry. I’ve never done one of these before, but I stayed up all night cramming for your operation.”

Imagine being seated on an airplane which has started to taxi down the runway. As the plane picks up speed, as the engines roar and you wait for that split-second bounce that tells you the wheels are no longer in touch with the ground, the pilot comes on and says, “Folks, welcome to flight 1129. I’m very excited to be your pilot today, because this is my first flight. I missed most of the classes in pilot school, but I was up until six this morning reading the manual, and I’m pretty sure I’ve got the basics covered.”

As a teacher, I start each course by laying down rules and guidelines for my students. I make sure they know my office hours, and I encourage them to come and see me. I let them know what I expect from them by way of attendance and class participation. I tell them what they have to read, and when their papers are due. And every semester, on the very first day of class, I give them the day and time of the final exam. But 16 weeks later, one or two students come into the final exam looking like zombies fresh from the grave. The exams they submit look even less alive. All the tell-tale signs are there that the students who wrote these exams were, at four o’clock that very morning, looking at parts of the course material for the first time, desperately trying to suck out the major points and commit them to memory.

We hear today’s gospel and wonder, “Why doesn’t Jesus tell us when he is returning?” We hear Jesus say, Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come, and we ask, “Wouldn’t it be better to tell us when we are going to die?” If we knew how long we had, we would not wander away into sin, would not harden our hearts. Jesus would meet us doing right, find us busy spending time with our families, visiting the sick, caring for the poor.

But how would he find us ten years earlier? What if the Lord appeared to you tonight and said, “You’re scheduled for November 30th in 2050”? Personally, I would be thrilled. For some of you, that would mean a place in the record books. But the question for us today is, what would we be doing on November 30th in 2040? Wouldn’t we wake up on November 30th of 2030, have a look at the calendar, and say, “Sweet! Twenty more years! Plenty of time to do what needs to be done.” And another day would go by with no one less hungry because of us. And another month would go by with no one less lonely because of us. And another year would go by without getting to confession.

And on the morning of November 30th of 2025, we would wake and say, “Twenty-five more years! All the time in the world.”

When would we start to cram? In the last ten years, or the last five, or the last six months? How long would we wait before we made a special trip to church on a weekday, knelt before the Blessed Sacrament, and prayed? How long would we wait before we called that brother or sister, son or daughter, we walked away from years ago, hurt and disappointed, angry and resentful? How long would we wait before we visited the nursing home, erased the pornography, sat down and said those things to a husband or wife we should have said a long time ago?

Would we wait? Would we cram? Would we try to force what it takes a lifetime to do into a few years? Because the situation is even more serious than that. The goal of following Christ not simply the piling up of good deeds but the attaining of a holy character. We know from the Gospels that good deeds can be done for bad reasons: a desire for praise, legal formality, the pleasures of comparison and condescension. Twenty years spent feeding the poor means little if it is done out of pride, like preparing for an exam by cramming facts, that are then soon forgotten.

Not knowing when the Lord will come for us is not a trap. It is a great mercy. Jesus doesn’t want to catch us off guard, so he shouts, “Watch!” Jesus wants us to be ready, so he cries out, “Don’t let me come and find you sleeping!” Jesus wants to spare us from our laziness, our youthful inability to believe our lives will end, our busy middle-aged years filled with procrastination. Jesus says, “I’m coming. You know I am coming. I’m telling you I am coming. If you start preparing now, today, this very hour, you won’t be caught off-guard, whenever I come.”

Because eighty years spent following of Christ is not a single year too many, and ninety years are far too few.

Today we begin another Advent, another season of watching, another time of preparation. The birth of Christ is on the horizon. Already we hear the music and see the decorations. Soon the tree stands will appear, and the fresh wreaths will go up, and white and green and blue lights on a black night will make us smile. As always, the local news programs will have cameras at the malls on December 24th. We’ll see pictures of long lines and empty shelves, and we’ll hear reporters ask the same thing they ask every year, “Why did you wait until the last minute to do your shopping?”

When Christ comes, as he will for each of us, what will we hear from him? Will he laugh and say, Well done, my good and faithful servant. Come, share your master’s joy? Or will he look puzzled, and ask, “You knew I was coming. Why did you wait until the last minute to get ready?”