First Sunday of Advent — Be Watchful and Ready!

SCRIPTURES & ART: Let Advent be a time of preparation for Christmas — and for the Second Coming of Christ

Alfred Elmore, “Two Women Will Be Grinding at the Mill,” 1868
Alfred Elmore, “Two Women Will Be Grinding at the Mill,” 1868 (photo: Public Domain)

The First Sunday of Advent, like the last Sundays of Ordinary Time, look forward to the Second Coming of Christ. As the liturgical year ends, the Church focuses on the final remaining act in salvation history, the only part of the Creed we profess in the future tense: “He will again come to judge the living and the dead.” As the liturgical year begins, the Church reminds us of the three ways Christ comes in Advent: in the past, in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago; in the present, when one sacramentally encounters Christ here and now; and in the future, at the Second Coming for which we wait in hope.

As we begin a new liturgical year during which almost all our Sunday Gospels will be drawn from St. Matthew, the leitmotif of today’s message about the Second Coming is watchfulness and preparation. Matthew multiplies example upon example to stress God’s unexpected final breaking into the world. He even uses the image of a thief, warning that his coming is unexpected. He multiplies ordinary scenes — two men in a field, two women grinding grain — to emphasize the universe-changing moment that will — probably for many, unexpectedly — interrupt their ordinary and quotidian lives. Our culture has turned the “ordinary” into the God-absent: current secularism retains a deist element that basically brackets God out of everyday life, affording him private entrée on Sundays. Against that backdrop, the idea of God’s sudden irruption into our lives becomes even more remote, perhaps even inconceivable, to modern man.

Michael Wigglesworth was a Puritan minister who preached in Malden, Massachusetts, in the second half of the 1600s. He was also a Puritan poet (yes, Virginia, they had poets). His “Day of Doom,” published in 1662, captures the unexpected nature of the Second Coming:

Still was the night, serene and bright,
when all Men sleeping lay;
Calm was the season, and carnal reason
thought so ’twould last for aye.
“Soul, take thine ease, let sorrow cease;
much good thou hast in store.”
This was their Song, their Cups among,
the evening before.
For at midnight breaks forth a light,
which turns the night to day,
And speedily an hideous cry
doth all the World dismay.
Sinners awake, their hearts do ache,
trembling their loins surpriseth;
Amaz’d with fear, by what they hear,
each one of them ariseth.
They rush from beds with giddy heads,
and to their windows run.
Viewing this light, which shines more bright
than doth the noon-day Sun.
Straightway appears (they see’t with tears)
the Son of God most dread,
Who with his Train comes on amain
to judge both Quick and Dead.

God generally does not send off loud warning bells as he deals with mankind. He may provide signs — “whoever has ears, hear!” (Matthew 13:9) — but does not provide guaranteed wax remover. God’s ingress into human history has taken place within the flow of human history. How many people went about their daily affairs, even “up to the day Noah entered the ark?” How many Jews grasped that the night they smeared blood on their doorframes would be a night Jews and not just Jews would remember today, some 3,200 years later? Outside of Mary and Joseph, who knew that world history would change one night in a one-mule town called “Bethlehem?” 

And how many people will go to sleep suspecting anything on a night that will brighten into endless day for some … and endless night for others?

That’s why the Second Reading tells us “it is the hour to wake from sleep … the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”

Were you ever robbed? I almost was. It was a winter Sunday night. I was in the bathtub. I heard rattling at the backdoor. I was tempted to dismiss it as the wind, but something bothered me so I went to the door and pulled back the curtain, only to find a man with a screwdriver trying to jam through my lock. Both of us were scared enough to run, but I can assure you, this “master of the house” was quite taken by the coming of a thief.

Jesus doesn’t want us to be “taken.” He wants us to be “prepared.” That’s the whole “reason for the season” of Advent. Preparation is our guiding principle. 

The Second Reading is clear in what preparation consists. “Throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light … conduct [yourselves] properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and lust, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Romans 13:12-14).  

St. Paul is quite the sober psychologist. He knows how much “sins of the flesh” weigh down human beings. We are bodily creatures who get our knowledge through our senses. Our senses have a direct and immediate impact on us. They are the most straightaway path to the average human being. And so, they are often the avenue of human falls, not because sins of the will — like pride — aren’t worse, but because even the devil doesn’t work harder than he must to trip a man up.

So, let Advent be a time of preparatory stocktaking, not just to celebrate the Solemnity of Christmas worthily, but to get our lives on the right track for his Second Coming, of which no one “knows the day or hour” (Matthew 25:13) but which none can avoid or be indifferent to, because nobody’s going to be left out of it.

Today’s Gospel was illustrated by the British Victorian painter Alfred Elmore (1815-1881). The oil painting from 1868 depicts two women working a grindstone, clearly alluding to Matthew 24:41, part of today’s Gospel. A basket of grain stands on the lower right. The two women are focused on their work, likely a task they have performed countless times before. Everything about the setting suggests ordinariness, just another workday. Nothing indicates any expectation that something out of the ordinary might take place. Yet that is precisely Jesus’s message: “At an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”

Paul Crowther suggests that the painting reflects Elmore’s interest in, and catering to contemporary tastes for “orientalism” in art. His critical eye suggests that the scene may actually be North African, specifically Algerian, perhaps on the basis of the elements on the wall and the style of the women’s dresses. That would not necessarily be unusual: generic “Middle Eastern” imagery of different eras was sometimes substituted for that of Israel of the first century. 

Elmore was an historical painter whose works included a significant religious component. Religious attitudes in Victorian England were changing: Catholicism was gradually being civilly rehabilitated, while the Church of England was becoming less of a faith and more of a cultural icon to which the establishment claimed affiliation. Art historians argue whether he had a certain anti-Catholic undercurrent or just catered to the commissioning party, e.g., he did produce “Catholic-friendly” works like “Portrait of a Girl Saying the Rosary.” Saying the Rosary might be a good habit of spiritual preparation this Advent.