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Watching and Waiting

“Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping” (Mark 13:35–36). This text is the watchword for the season of Advent. The Church Year begins with these words to teach us to put first things first, to train us how to rightly order our loves. Advent calls us to place the love of Christ at the center of our lives, to live our lives “waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:7). But what does it mean to wait and watch for the coming of our Lord?

To begin, let’s distinguish between what we might call active waiting and passive waiting. We do not wait for the Lord’s coming passively, as we might wait in a long line, or for a delayed flight, or in a traffic jam, or for the spinning wheel on your computer screen, or for morning during a sleepless night.. Instead, our waiting for the Lord’s return is active, a waiting of eager anticipation and preparing: like a child counting down the days to a birthday, or parents waiting for the birth of a child, or waiting for the arrival of someone you love very much.

That said, we do often experience waiting for our Lord as a lack of something desperately needed. This occurs when we are vividly aware of the brokenness of the world, of the damage and devastation of sin — the conflicts in the Holy Land and Ukraine, the persistence of poverty and injustice, the poverty of our politics, the pain and sickness and suffering in the lives of our loved ones — or our own. It is when we are most aware of such suffering that we can learn to long especially keenly for our Lord to come and set things right. Then we cry out, with the suffering church throughout time and around the world, “How long, O Lord? Thy kingdom come, thy will be done! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Ps. 13:1; Rev. 22:20).

Notice, though, that such cries of lament are a form of active waiting. To cry out How long, O Lord? is a form of hope, borne of the conviction that Christ will come again and make all things new; it is an act of faith. One of the most powerful expressions of this is found in Psalm 130. Listen to what the psalmist says:

Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plenteous redemption.
And he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities. (Ps. 130:1, 2, 5–8)

The figure of the watchman suggests the seriousness and consequence of the Christian life. The work of a watchman is a matter of life and death. A watchman cannot afford to be complacent. Neither can you. Neither can I.

Thomas Merton ends his book The Sign of Jonas with a beautiful epilogue (“Fire Watch, July 4, 1952”). Merton narrates an evening he served on fire watch in his monastery, the Abbey of Gethsemani, near Bardstown, Kentucky. He describes how, as the other monks went to bed, he takes the watchman’s sneakers and flashlight and keys, as well as a heavy clock that he carries on a strap over his shoulder. He starts in the pitch blackness of the cellar and works his way methodically through every passage of the monastery: through the kitchens and the refectory and scriptorium, past the sleeping monks in their cells, down the empty hallways of the old guesthouse, through the mysterious shadows and sounds of the empty church, up “the trembling, twisted stair into the belfry,” and then out through a door that opens to the stars, out onto the roof of the monastery, having satisfied himself “that there is no fire in the tower, which would flare like a great torch and take the whole abbey up with it in twenty minutes.”

At the same time, Merton’s narrative traces a spiritual journey, in which his exploration of the monastery is also a searching of his life, a questioning of his monastic vocation, an examination of the nooks and crannies of his soul. As he puts it:

The fire watch is an examination of conscience in which your task as watchman suddenly appears in its true light: a pretext devised by God to isolate you, and to search your soul with lamps and questions, in the heart of darkness.

Merton’s fire watch deepens our sense of what it means to keep watch. Let me put it this way: Think of yourself as a watchman, like Thomas Merton looking for fire in his monastery, discovering God searching your soul “with lamps and questions.” Go on fire watch in the house of your soul. Examine your conscience. Search for exposed wires and faulty fuse boxes. Go over every aspect of your life to be sure there is no sin smoldering away, hidden in the dark. When you find fire, do not delay in putting it out. You would not delay if you smelled smoke in your home, would you?

The consequences of complacency to sin are far more severe. Now is the time to change your life. Repent. Turn from your sin, and turn back to your Lord, “who knows the secrets of every heart” (Ps. 44:21), to whom “every one of us shall give account of himself” (Rom. 14:12). Say with the psalmist,

Search me out, O God, and know my heart;
try me and know my restless thoughts.
Look well whether there be any wickedness in me
and lead me in the way that is everlasting. (Ps. 139:22–23, 1979 BCP)

“Watch ye heed, watch and pray: for ye know now then the time is.” Thus far, we have emphasized the seriousness and consequence of keeping watch. But, without diminishing anything I have just said, I want to end, as it were, with a change of key, returning to the image of waiting and watching for the arrival of someone you love very much. We must not forget that the Master for whose coming we are to remain vigilant is none other than our good Lord, who not only calls us servants, but also friends. We ought not to fear or dread his coming, but to watch and wait for our dear Lord, as we would watch and wait for our most Beloved; to long for and prepare for his coming, as you would if you were in love. Think of the experience of being in love, how it shapes your whole life: how you spend your time, how you spend your money, what you want and what you fear, your sorrows and your joys, all your decisions and everything you do.[1]

Just so, our Lord calls us to live our whole lives, waiting and watching for his coming, not only as vigilant servants, but also as those who are in love with God.


[1] Following closely Bernard Lonergan and Joe Whelan, S.J., as quoted in Richard G. Malloy, “What Lonergan (and Arrupe) can teach us about God, love, and being human,” America: The Jesuit Review (Dec. 23, 2019).

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