By Damien Feeney

“Watch yourselves” (Luke 21:34)

It is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday of the Church’s year, and our readings thrust us into a state of expectation and longing. Jeremiah, on unusually upbeat form, tells Israel of God’s future plan to grow a ‘virtuous branch’ from the line of David, while Paul reminds Thessalonika of the need to be ready for the time of Christ’s coming with all his saints. Finally Jesus, in Luke’s Gospel, forecasts all kinds of ominous signs which will precede that moment when Jesus will return for the final time: he reminds them of the importance of their own good conduct, lest the day of his return close in on us like a trap. He does so with the rather unnerving words “Watch yourselves.”

This is by way of warning. Focus. Concentrate. Get your priorities right. Stay alert. Remember what’s important. All these ideas are tied up in two words: Watch yourselves.

Religious communities know all about watching. For them it means getting up very early in the morning, at a time when the rest of us are in our deepest phase of sleep. They go to bed at a time when many of us are enjoying the early evening, and are at their devotions at 5 o’clock, or even earlier. They are, in effect, obeying the Lord’s command — watch yourselves. They are keeping Vigil. One of the ancient offices of prayer in the church is the office of the Vigil – the time of night when someone is on watch for the whole community, lest they be caught unawares. That in turn has its roots in the practice of our earliest brothers and sisters who were so convinced of the imminent coming of Jesus that they hoped to be awake when he returned.

Over 2,000 years later, our expectation of something quite so sudden has diminished. We don’t expect Jesus to come today, or tomorrow (although of course they might be famous last words), but the desire of religious communities to be awake when (for the most part) the rest of us are sleeping keeps that expectation alive on behalf of the rest of the church. They are the guards on the ramparts of the castle, sentinels on the watchtower, eyes trained on the horizon for signs of his return.

The watchword of the early community was “Maranatha” — “Come, Lord Jesus.” These first Christians had committed their lives to Christ, and so they longed to see him again, and to be with him forever in his kingdom. So they lived in a state of continual preparedness and watchfulness that found expression in the practice of praying at night.

And the truth is that the night hours are a marvelous time to pray. All is quiet. No distractions, none of the noise which characterizes our waking hours. Should we find ourselves awake at such times, there are few more profitable things to do than pray. Many years ago I knew someone called Diana, in my first parish in Yorkshire. She was crippled with painful arthritis, and was frustrated that she couldn’t really help us in the ongoing mission and ministry of the church, and she frequently found herself awake during the long, quiet hours of the night. I suggested to her that she should use the time well; in prayer for other people on the estate, with a solitary lit candle and a list of people to pray for. Suddenly she had purpose, and continued the practice until the day she died. I lost count of the number of her prayers that were answered. It was a mighty act of love as she focused her energies on others who were in need, rather than her own pain. She was an inspiration.

We watch prayerfully for the coming of the Lord in Advent just as we wait for the coming of the dawn. We watch, for we know neither the day nor the hour. We watch, because that’s what people who are in love do when the beloved is away. As a Lancastrian I have always loved the voice of the great Kathleen Ferrier, and my father owned a record of her singing a folk song called “Blow the Wind Southerly,” which is the lover’s lament as she awaits the return of her beloved from the sea.

They told me last night there were ships in the offing,
And I hurried down to the deep rolling sea;
But my eye could not see it wherever might be it,
The barque that is bearing my lover to me.

I stood by the lighthouse the last time we parted,
Till darkness came down o’er the deep rolling sea,
And no longer I saw the bright barque of my lover.
Blow, bonny breeze and bring him to me.

Oh, is it not sweet to hear the breeze singing,
As lightly it comes o’er the deep rolling sea?
But sweeter and dearer by far when ’tis bringing,
The barque of my true love in safety to me.

That’s what lovers do. They wait, they watch, anxiously, excitedly, longingly, for the beloved. They gossip, longing to hear news of the return. Chiara Lubich summed this up:

Only love is watchful. This is a characteristic of love. When one loves a person, one watches and waits unceasingly. Every moment spent away from the loved one is lived with them in mind, is spent waiting. Christ asks us to love, so he requires us to watch.

In Advent, we watch. We are vigilant, because we love. And we long for the waiting to be over, the moment when the beloved returns. That is our task, in our praying, our preparing, our singing and our living, these four weeks. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus, and do not delay.

The Rev. Damian Feeney is an interim minister in the Diocese of Litchfield and former vice-principal and director of pastoral studies at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford.

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