Beware, keep alert – Matthew Cheung Salisbury

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (Mk 13.33)

This evening we might be said to be sitting uncomfortably between two points of perspective. On one hand, we are at the end of the church’s year: we are in the week of the feast of Christ the King, when we celebrate the eternal reign of Jesus Christ in heaven over all things. On the other hand, in our readings and in our hearts and minds, we are looking forward to Advent, the season when we prepare to commemorate the incarnation of that King who, despite a royal ancestry, was born in a stable and laid in a manger by the humblest of earthly parents. The church year begins, we are reminded, not with the Christmas story, the remarkable birth of God made man in Christ, or with any other grand episode of God incarnate, but with anticipation.

God can seem very far away from us at times, a point emphasised frequently in the Old Testament, both in our first reading and in the Psalms: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps 13.1) and the prophet Isaiah: There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you, for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. We live in a fallen world full of evil and unhappiness, famine, war, and distress; a world where a propensity to acquire wealth and spend it is met by vitriolic, self-congratulating criticism from those who seek to position themselves on moral high ground yet alienate themselves from the society whose morals they are trying to uphold. Sometimes our world seems irreconcilable with the world we know to have been saved by a loving God who gave of himself for our salvation, in which all Christians seek the coming of his kingdom on earth.

In previous years during the carol service – itself an anticipation of the rest of Advent – the choir has sung the text which begins I look from afar, and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. This is a text which our medieval predecessors sang every year on Advent Sunday: the first in a long series of musical reflections on that day of the season to come. As Christians we know what is to come: in our own immediate future the joy of Christmastide, the time when we commemorate the coming of God WITH US – Emmanuel – and in the time to come, the appearance of the Son of Man in glory, at the end of our lives and at the end of the world. The arrival of a Messiah was long anticipated by Israel: O that you would tear open the heavens and come down writes Isaiah. But rather than gratification in an instant, we, like Israel, are compelled to wait. The medieval Cistercian St Aelred of Rielvaux preached that the season of Advent was instituted to allow Christians to experience the longing of those generations who had not known a Redeemer. In the light of Christ we can pray that through this four week meditation on his first coming we may have an even greater longing for the return of our Redeemer who has already come, and whom we know will come again.

This sure knowledge is the bedrock of our faith, the ‘already’, if we can use the awkward division of salvation history into the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. And our comprehension and hopes for the ‘not yet’ are in clear knowledge of the ‘already’. We are not at the end of God’s relationship with creation. To paraphrase a well known prime minister, we are not even at the beginning of the end. We may be, in this knowledge of Christ’s incarnation and assurance of his return, at the end of the beginning.

As Christians, our daily lives are always already in anticipation of the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: we pray: our Father… thy kingdom come… a kingdom which we are working for, an end which is desired and the consequences of which are already known, but which is perpetually to come. Christ’s rule over us and over all things is never more in our minds than in this week when we celebrate his kingship. We already make memory of the incarnation of Christ in the sacrament of his body and blood, a material sacrament for a material world. But the coming of Christ’s kingdom in the end of the world does not seem for us, as it did for St Paul and the early church, a material reality which is likely to manifest itself in the near future. Yet, Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come.

Today’s Gospel from St Mark relates the last words of Jesus to his disciples before the Passion narrative, when he was betrayed by those for whom he came. Those words tell them, and us, that the Son of Man shall come to judge the living and the dead at a time unknown to us. All who hope to meet the master of the house when he comes must keep awake. We might be reminded here of the agony in the garden, when Jesus wakes Peter and asks, Could you not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mt 26.41).

Like the disciples, we are not good at waiting around, being patient and watchful. There are many burdens on our time and it is very easy to say, even as someone who professes to be a follower of Christ – like the disciples – ‘Oh, yes, Jesus Christ is Lord’, and be done with it, failing to realise the responsibilities which we acquire from that assertion: responsibilities which must pervade the ways we live our lives in the knowledge of God made man, inspired by his teaching and ministry.

So perhaps we can come up with three ways to keep alert this Advent.

First, we might anticipate, with great concentration, the anniversary of the Nativity. This is very easy, as there are many reminders to do it: whenever we see or hear something which proclaims the impending arrival of the Christmas season, we can remember what that arrival means, and why it appears every year, and so strive to keep Christ’s coming in mind.

Second, we might make ourselves ready to come before that incarnation of Christ by leaving ourselves open to means of grace, namely through prayer and worship. We might develop a discipline in addition to our usual spiritual diet which will help us focus on the remarkable concept of God made man in the world. This may come clear in a particularly special way in the Eucharist, which is the way we remember his presence among us in reality.

Third and finally, we must prepare ourselves through the first and second ways to meet our Lord at the end of our days and at the end of time. Both may seem equally distant in our busy, preoccupied lives, but we will all die, and some of those whom we know will die before us. We must accept death as soon as we are born. But God has made the ultimate sacrifice of self-giving love: a death which has forever destroyed death, made possible through birth into our flesh, where his shelter was a stable and his cradle was a stall. All this we know. It is why we anticipate the coming of the Kingdom.

Advent is a model for Christian living. In the middle of the journey of our life, we must wait for the predicted coming of Jesus Christ, bolstered by the Eucharist and meditation on the Nativity, in the assurance of the presence of God among us, even in God made man, who died and rose for us, and in the anticipation that he shall come again and place us at his right hand in heaven. The assurance of Christ’s coming to us is the assurance of life everlasting.

The Word became flesh – and dwelt among us. As we approach the altar and so through grace behold his presence, let us pray for strength, discipline, and wakefulness in the coming season of Advent, that we may we ever be near him, dwelling now and in the fullness of time with him, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, world without end.

Matthew Cheung-Salisbury
23rd November 2011

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