"Be vigilant at all times" - not exactly a very pleasant phrase to be heard as we prepare for the holidays on this first Sunday of Advent. Jesus used variations of the phrase at various times during his ministry. And it has been interpreted in many different ways: "be watchful," "be careful," "stay awake," "keep on your toes," "heads up!" "pay attention."
But during the Season of Advent, the most salient interpretation of the phrase "be vigilant and pray at all times" is one of "paying attention" - that one be attentive to the presence of God at each moment of life, make the most of all opportunities, and prepare for the Kingdom already present in this world.
Attention is the key word here. It is paying attention to the presence of God. It is tending toward that presence by paying attention to the presence and plight of our neighbor. It is intending God's presence in this world, being tender with God's presence and being able to live with the tension of God's presence. It is living intensely with God's presence.
In Jesus' view, the Kingdom is always near, ready to break through the barriers of every day, to take hold of us, impel us, embrace us, challenge us - and if we pay attention, and if we are "vigilant," we will be able to find evidence of His all-encompassing Love in the simple, ordinary and sometimes tragic events that go to make up our daily lives.
Advent is a time of expectation, a time of preparation, a time of urgency. And we enter this seaseon with vivid, violent reminders of the evils caused in our society by selfishness, ruthless ambition, twisted hatred and the craze for power at every level. This ugly drama is played out all over our world: in our homes and families, in the business community, in our politics, in the bitterness and irreconcilable differences among the peoples of the Middle East, in the mistrust found among nations and even in the lack of trust in church leadership.
Scripture reminds us during this first week that Advent is also a time of warning. We must not allow ourselves to slip into the routine of ordinary life and to miss the opportunities that life presents to us. Advent is a time for us to recall lost opportunities, and of determining to take steps to miss fewer opportunities in the days ahead. It's a time for us to pay attention, to be watchful. We need to prepare ourselves to live effectively and lovingly with life's tensions, and not only to be aware of our needs but also to the needs of others. "May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all..." - 1 Thessalonians 3:12
This is the gift of Christmas - the gift that speaks of Light dispelling the Darkness. Much of the world today continues to be confused about this gift, and refuses to accept it. The Light that has entered the darkness is one born in a stable, and whose earthly life ended on a cross. The babe of Bethlehem 2000 years ago has given us a legacy and a mission: "Love as I have loved. Live as I have lived." This is His Christmas gift to us.
Our God is He who loved us enough to enter the darkness with us in order to bring us into the light. The darkness still exists, but it is less intense, less ominous, because of Him. All is not right with the world, but Christ's call to "be watchful and pray always" is one which enables us to bring others into His Light. We are called to be careful, to be caring, to be care-givers, to watch out - not only for ourselves, but for our brothers and sisters who share the darkness and Light with us.
Especially as this year comes to a close, we reaffirm our belief in all that Jesus has promised and has already accomplished in us; and we see in this promise a reason to hope for so much more.... for a deepening of our own faith and love... for the power to overcome evil in ourselves and in our world... for the spread of the gospel... and for us to proclaim that the darkness that overshadows the present moment, whether from sin, sickness, poverty, sorrow, weakness or failure, will be dissipated and driven away by the Sun of Justice, the Word-Made-Flesh.