In these days, when news of wars, ecological catastrophes, and political fragmentation swirl about us constantly, how we long for God to “rend the heavens and come down!” If only God would intervene decisively in the messes we humans have made, instantly raising up a new world sparkling with love and righteousness. This poignant longing remains even when we know very well that God is unlikely to act in this way. A glance at the cross reminds us that even God’s Beloved was not rescued from the horror of pain and injustice. As Advent begins, we are invited to reflect long and hard on what it really means for God to enter our world and make it new.
The gospel for today makes it clear that this reflection cannot be superficial. We may have an abiding faith that God is always at work, but that does not mean it is easy to discern what God is really up to in the world. Jesus tells us “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming.” We must be willing to dwell in that uncertainty for a long time, without losing our readiness to respond when the realization comes that the moment to do God’s work has arrived. This long unknowing may be more difficult for our generation than for previous ones, since we expect all our questions to be answered instantaneously with a quick search of our phones. The question of recognizing God’s presence and action, however, is different. It will require honing a different set of skills.
“Be watchful! Be alert!” says Jesus. Watchfulness has several levels, but the first and most basic is awakening to our own senses. In a harried and screen-saturated world, we often remain oblivious to most of the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and touches through which the myriad beings with whom we share life are offering us their presence and their gifts. To return to our senses, we must turn away from our screens, slow down, and gently enhance our physical alertness. I have been astonished at how a walk I have taken a hundred times, in an urban location not known for any special natural beauty, can become almost like paradise simply by practicing this gentle alertness of the senses. A multicolored insect, some heads of grass waving in the wind, the woody fragrance of moist soil, the rippling touch of the breeze on my skin, a bird’s simple trill – each small detail, deeply received, reveals wonders. One discovers the presence of God shining forth from the very heart of the world.
Watchfulness in prayer takes us to another level. Like life, prayer too has its seasons of uncertainty, when one can only wait and watch without clarity about how to find the God for whom one longs. With Isaiah, we complain that “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us up to our guilt!” Here too we are invited to an ever-deepening openness to all that emerges within our mind and heart. Sometimes one must traverse mountain ranges of painful thoughts and feelings, all the while alert for the tracks of the One who will guide us surely. We will recognize that One by his utter humility and kindness.
Meanwhile, we live in a culture addicted to screens. Whether we use them for doomscrolling or for endless entertainment, screens tend to nurture fantasies – some of them terrifying, others pleasurable. Contemplative watchfulness in nature or in prayer, on the other hand, reveals that the new world that God is actually raising up is not the world of our fantasies. Rather, it is a world where love finds a way to bloom everywhere – in every blade of grass, in every open heart and mind, and even, astonishingly, on the cross. “Be watchful! Be alert!” Only those who are awake realize the joy of this new world that is breaking forth here and now, right in the midst of this broken and suffering “old” world of our everyday lives.