When Is Now: Advent and the Present Moment
For us Christians the fleetingness of our journey through life should be a spur to help us make better use of our time. It should never be a motive for fearing Our Lord, and much less for looking upon death as a disastrous and final end.
Cf. Friends of God, no. 39
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent is the response to a question—and not to just any question, but to the question: When? “And they asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign when this is about to take place?’”
As the disciples admire the façade of the Temple, Jesus very deliberately redirects their attention elsewhere—precisely to its nonexistence, its eventual destruction. They had seen the Temple building many times since they were children, and they were perhaps just making the kind of casual observation you would make upon seeing the exterior of a beautiful church that you’ve seen a hundred times before. Then Jesus deploys an anything-but-casual comment, designed to alarm His disciples and make them ask, “When?”
The Lord reveals the Temple’s future: “As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” And this provokes the intended question: “When?”
“WHEN?” IS THE QUESTION
The most beautiful and hallowed thing that the disciples had ever seen would be gone within a generation. Fish would still fill the nets of the fishermen in the sea of Galilee, the sun would still rise and set over the over the Temple mount, but the Temple would be a memory only—burned out and toppled by Roman legions because Jerusalem hadn’t recognized the time of its visitation. The “when” had passed them by.
In a sense, “when” is the question. It’s the impatient question we start asking in childhood: When will this start? When will it be over? When will we get there? As we grow older, the question of when covers all kinds of things: our ongoing frustrations—when will this stop? Our unconquered temptations—when will I be able to say no to this, to put this sin behind me forever? Then we have our unrealized hopes, whose fulfillment keeps us in suspense. Lingering in the back of every adult’s mind, especially as the years pass, is the question of the final “when,” our departure from this world.
Our Lord tells us that the truth will set us free. But on a number of important points that really fascinate us, where we really want to know the answer, He wants us to be completely ignorant. Jesus wants us to be ignorant not only about the end of the world, the end of our lives, but also about the fate of certain hopes, about the duration of obstacles that keep setting us back.
Probably not one of us hasn’t at some time thought, “If only I could know what will happen, then I could plan accordingly.” We’re so efficient. God appears to be not so efficient. We have out timetables and schedules, He seems to be operating with other priorities.
Just what are those priorities? What does our uncertainty accomplish?
Our ignorance is supposed to change how we live here and now. The Lord isn’t so concerned about what we might do if we only had the chance, but about what we are in fact doing with the chances we have. We might say: If only I knew when, then I could get my life together in time, I could plan better, etc. The Lord doesn’t want us to be calculating. Salvation is not strategic planning. He wants us to be vigilant servants awaiting their Master’s return. He wants us to be simple, sincere, straightforward children of God.
A vigilant servant lives in the presence of the Master even in the absence of the Master. It’s all the same to him. He’s not trying to take advantage of the free time he has in the Master’s absence—like children at home for an hour when the parents are out. In one parable Jesus says: “But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the menservants and the maidservants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will punish him.” That’s supposed to shake us up.
We may be oblivious to God’s presence, to His nearness. We may live each day in a kind of survival mode, just trying to make it to day’s end in one piece. But the Lord wants us to know that He’s paying close attention to everything—and not for the sake of catching us off-guard. He’s not looking to spring a trap on us. He just wants us to walk in the sunlight, not to feel the need to bury our deeds in darkness.
NOW IS THE DAY OF SALVATION
Several verses before today’s gospel we find out just how close God is to us. The poor old widow came to make her contribution at the Temple. No one saw it. No one cared. But God was seated on a bench a few feet away. And God saw what she did in secret and blessed her for it. Off she went and had no idea that Jesus Christ was holding her up as an example for the whole world, down to you and me today. There was no question about: Maybe if she had had a million shekels then she would have given a million. She gave what she had and God was content with that.
A good question to ask ourselves frequently is: If Jesus were to come right now, would He be pleased with the choices I’m making? Can I stand judgment as I am? Am I operating in the reality of the present or banking on the possibilities of an unknown future? These are the questions that the Church wants us to ask ourselves at this time of year, as we think about the end of the world and of our own lives. And we find that in this most important of cases, ignorance does not excuse.
But at the beginning of Advent, we are also attuned to new beginnings. “This time of Advent,” says St Josemaria, “is a time for hope. These great horizons of our Christian vocation, this unity of life built on the presence of God our Father, can and ought to be a daily reality” (Christ is Passing By, no. 11). The best insurance for our future is to treat the present moment as pure gold. It might look like clay, or cardboard, but in God’s eyes it is always—always—the stuff of our salvation. “When will this be?” Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.