"Be Watchful" is not exactly a very pleasant phrase to be heard as we prepare for the holidays on this first Sunday of Advent. It can mean a lot of different things to different people: "be careful," "stay awake," "keep on your toes," "heads up!" But for the Christian, the phrase "be watchful and pray always" implies that one should make the most of all opportunities, be attentive to the presence of God at each moment of life, and prepare for the Kingdom already present in this world.
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 "watchful," we will be able to find evidence of His all-encompassing Love in the simple, ordinary events that go to make up our daily lives.
Advent is a time of expectation, a time of preparation, a time of urgency. The Lord reminds us during this first week that it 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.
We need to look carefully at the world around us, tend to its needs and sufferings, and become lights to brighten its darkness.
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.
The most effective advertising agencies in the world couldn't possibly give this holiday gift away! Modern society doesn't want a gift like that. It would prefer a Christmas devoid of darkness, and would have us believe that all is right with the world.
Maybe that's why our traditional symbols of Christmas have become so commercialized. Just look around at the shopping center nearest you: already, the intense glory of the Christmas angels is being reduced to the papier-mâché of holiday collectibles; the Magi with their royal gifts have almost been turned into typical "holiday shoppers," and the dark night into which the Star of Bethlehem once shone brilliantly, has almost become outclassed by the twinkling glow of dazzling light displays. It is much easier to trivialize and decorate the truth beyond recognition than it is to face it.
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.
Advent points to the universal Christmas mystery: God's irrevocable choice of our world as the place where salvation happens - and the presence of Jesus, the Word made flesh, as the one who would finally unite the human family in a new community of justice and peace.