Jesus said to his disciples: ‘As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left. So stay away, because you do not know the day your master is coming, You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.’ (Matthew 24: 37-44)
Well, that escalated quickly. If you’re like me, Advent is the time when you can finally allow yourself to start thinking about Christmas. During this time, the Christian world prepares to recall and celebrate the wonder of Jesus’ birth. So why does the Church hit us with a Gospel about the end times at the very beginning of Advent?
Picture the scene: a family gathers around the tree on Christmas morning, the younger siblings eager to tear open the wrapping paper that surrounds their presents, a dad hoping for a new pair of slippers and a mum….wait, where’s mum? Dad gets up and goes back into the bedroom where mum is sleeping soundly. He gives her a nudge. “Are you not getting up? The kids are waiting.” Mum stretches, looks at the clock and wearily replies, “What? Waiting for what? It’s 6.30am on a Sunday. Why is everyone awake?” Suddenly it dawns on her as she looks at the date on the bedside clock. 25th December 2016. “Wait!? It’s Christmas? I’m not ready! I didn’t get round to buying presents, never mind a turkey. Why did no one warn me!?”
An unlikely story. Many of us will spend weeks, or even months preparing for Christmas Day, and it is easy because we know exactly when it will be. We work better with deadlines than without. We know the deadline for shopping online, the deadline for sending Christmas cards, the deadline for ordering the turkey. We know these things must be done by a certain date. If Christmas could be celebrated on any day of the year, a day of our choosing, would our preparations be as thorough? Or perhaps we would never actually get around to celebrating it at all.
And that is what makes our Gospel reading today even more difficult for us. Jesus tells us that He will come again at an hour we won’t expect. So how can we possibly prepare? There may be a sense of apathy, a self-assuredness that the hour He speaks of won’t come in our time. We don’t need to worry now. But if Jesus came tomorrow, how prepared would we be? Would we be ready to welcome Him? Or would we exclaim, “Why did no one warn me!?”?
In a sense, Advent can feel like a kind of limbo. On the one hand, we have the annual cycle of the Church’s year, and during this time we prepare each to recall Christ’s birth. On the other hand, we look forward, to a time not known to us, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead (an acknowledgement we make each Sunday when reciting the Creed). We are continually reminded that Christ will come again, that we will be judged, and yet we often fail to prepare ourselves for this reality. So what can we do when we are constantly looking back to Christ’s time on earth and looking forward to His coming again?
The answer is given to us in the Gospel. We ‘stand ready’. We make our present position a stance of readiness. Each day we prepare ourselves to live as a disciple of God. Advent is a real gift in this sense. For the next four weeks, we have the opportunity to really focus on our place in God’s creation. To focus on what God has given to us, how He communicates Himself to us, and how we respond to that communication. Perhaps we can spend extra time in prayer during Advent. Many churches have Eucharistic Adoration nowadays – why not resolve to spend time with the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as often as possible? Perhaps, like me, you might want to spend more time reflecting on God’s Word, because it is in His Word that God reveals His plan for us. If you have children, take the time to make an Advent wreath with them and spend a few minutes together in prayer each day. Find a way of making your heart a home for Christ this year, and you will go a fair way in preparing yourself for when He comes again.