Sunday, Dec. 3, is the First Sunday of Advent. Mass Readings: Isaiah 63:16-17, 19, 64: 2-7; Psalm 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37.

Jesus is coming. The fact that he’s coming on Dec. 25 fills us with sweet anticipation. But the fact that he’s coming in judgment at an unexpected time when our current life ends might fill us with dread.

That joy and dread are both right — and both wrong — compared to what we find in today’s readings.

“Be watchful! Be alert!” Jesus warns in the Gospel. He tells a story about a master returning to his home, where we are servants. “May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping,” he says. “Watch!”

What Jesus is asking of us is not easy. Says the Catechism: “According to the Lord, the present time is the time of the Spirit and of witness, but also a time still marked by ‘distress’ and the trial of evil, which does not spare the Church and ushers in the struggles of the last days. It is a time of waiting and watching” (672).

The first reading, on the other hand, stresses the joy of the coming of the Master.

“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” says Isaiah. “You wrought awesome deeds that we could not hope for.”

What is the difference between the distress we can feel at the duty of Christian life and the joy of anticipation the prophet feels at the prospect of his Savior?

The first reading gives some hints.

The first difference is repentance. “You are angry, and we are sinful,” says the reading.

“All of us have become like unclean people.” Understanding our fault in the difficulties of our lives, and breaking from it, is necessary to be open to God’s will.

The second need is prayer.

“O Lord, you are our father,” says the reading. “We are the clay and you the potter.” God shapes and molds those who take the time to communicate with him. He gives us everything we need to be “firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

As St. Paul puts it in the second reading, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

It isn’t easy. The dread we feel is appropriate — it is called “fear of the Lord,” one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.

But the Christian life also isn’t drudgery — it is a labor of love, preparing for a Master who wants to enrich us in every way, “with all discourse and all knowledge.”

So we are right to see the sweetness of the Lord’s coming. This is the gift of “piety.”

Just as the prayer, fasting and almsgiving of Advent ends with the joy of Christmas, the difficulty of servants waiting and watching ends with the glorious return of the Lord.

Tom Hoopes is writer

in residence at

Benedictine College and

author of The Fatima

Family Handbook
(Holy Heroes).