Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (3 December 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake. (Mark 13:33-37 – NRSV)
For most of Christian history, Mark’s Gospel was thought to be of little significance. The Gospels of Matthew and John took pride of place. A much more balanced picture has emerged over the last 150 years or so:
“For the bulk of church history the Gospel according to Mark, often called the Second Gospel (because of its frequent listing after Matthew), was of little independent significance. The famous statement of Augustine (354–430 C.E.) that Mark was primarily a follower, lackey, and digester of Matthew (De consensu evangelistarum 1.2.4) both crystallized much patristic thought and shaped opinion on Mark well into the nineteenth century. Greater authority was given to gospels thought to be by apostles (Matthew, John) than those by apostolici viri (“apostolic men”), Luke and Mark. Moreover, since ninety percent of Mark appears in Matthew there seemed to be little need to comment on Mark. .....
“Since the rise of historical criticism the situation could not be more different. Virtually every major movement in the modern study of the Gospels has emerged in dialogue with Mark. Of particular importance was the development of the still-debated “Two-Source” hypothesis regarding the Synoptic Gospels. ....
“Basically the Two-Source hypothesis argues that Matthew and Luke used as written sources the Gospel of Mark and another source called Q (from the German Quelle meaning “source”). This latter source consists of roughly 335 verses, mostly sayings of Jesus, that Matthew and Luke share in common but that are not found in Mark. Many considerations have been adduced and debated, consisting of literary observations, logic of usage, and theological concerns, to argue that Mark is thus the earliest gospel so that, in effect, Matthew and Luke remain its earliest commentaries.
“Most New Testament scholars favor the priority of Mark on the basis of certain ways in which Matthew and Luke are related to Mark. Generally Matthew and Luke follow the Markan order of events and actual wording, and when they diverge from Mark they rarely agree in their divergences. This suggests that Matthew and Luke must not have known each other, and that they used Mark and Q independently.” (John R Donahue, SJ, The Gospel of Mark, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002, 3-4.)
When reading Mark’s Gospel we cannot forget his opening announcement concerning Jesus: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1:14-15). As we approach the last parts of the Gospel, the sense of urgency grows. Thus, in Chapter 13 – from which our text is taken – there is a definite tone of gravity and urgency. The destruction of the Temple is foretold (13:1-8), the disciples are told they will be persecuted (13:9-13), there will be a “desolating sacrilege” and much violence (13:14-23), the “son of Man” will “come on the clouds” (13:24-26), there is the lesson of the fig tree (13:27-31) and finally todays command to “stay awake”. John R Donahue writes: “When asked about the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus in his farewell discourse (or testament) in 13:1–37 moves to the cosmic level and looks forward to the coming of the Son of Man in glory as the sign of the fullness of God’s kingdom.” (John R Donoahue, op cit, 24.)
“Throughout the Gospel, ‘Son of Man’ is a prominent title for Jesus. It sometimes appears as a reference to Jesus himself or in his role as a representative human being (see 2:10, 28; 14:21, 41). It occurs in all three Passion predictions (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34) and related texts (9:9, 12; 10:45). But ‘Son of Man’ also refers to a pivotal figure in the events associated with the full coming of God’s kingdom. In Mark 8:38 we are told that the Son of Man ‘when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels’ will be ashamed of those who have been ashamed of him and his teachings. Mark 13:26 laces the manifestation of the glorious Son of Man as the climax in the series of events that constitute the unfolding of God’s plan for creation, and in the trial scene, Mark 14:62 identifies Jesus as the glorious figure of Daniel 7:13. Thus Mark 13:26 is a pivotal text in a very important theme of Mark’s Gospel.” (John R Donahue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ, The Gospel of Mark, Liturgical Press, 2002, 381.)
At the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we are told that, after the temptations in the desert Jesus “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:14-15). “The time is fulfilled!” Isaiah had prophesied: “Behold I create new heavens and a new earth, I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress (Isaiah 65:17f). The Good News is that the prophecy of Isaiah is being brought to fruition.
Beware, keep alert: The Greek verb blepete – translated here as “beware” – has already been used by Mark in v.5, v.9 and v.23. It receives greater emphasis here with the addition of another Greek verb, agrypneite, here translated as “keep alert”. And the passage climaxes with three commands, using the Greek verb – grēgoreō – here translated once as “be on the watch” (v.34) and twice as “keep awake” (v.35 and v.37). This same verb – grēgoreō – becomes a key word in Mark’s Gethsemane passage – see 14:34, 37, 38. Beware, keep alert, be on the watch, keep awake, “is an appropriate summary of the ethical stance that emerges from the Markan eschatological discourse.” (J R Donahue, op cit, 378.)
for you do not know when the time will come: This explains why the disciples must be awake. The same idea is repeated in the min-parable of the master going away and returning at an unknown time (vv. 35-36). This repetition suggests the coming of “the Son of Man” and, with him, the Kingdom of God. It will not do, therefore, to be distracted or daydreaming or engaged in self-serving pursuits. The mind and heart – indeed one's whole life – must be focused!
the doorkeeper: The “charge” of one of the slaves in the min-parable is to be the doorkeeper. The safety and wellbeing of those in the house depends on the doorkeeper doing his job well. One scholar notes: “The parable focuses on the doorkeeper, who has but one ‘charge’. The Greek word behind ‘charge’ is exousia, the same word used of Jesus’ divine authority. Here it connotes the responsibility that legitimates the doorkeeper’s position, which is to watch. Living faithfully in the present, being attentive to the signs, and being ready at any hour for the return of the master is not one job among others; it is the doorkeeper’s only job.”(J R Edwards, The Gospel according to Mark, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: Eerdmans; Apollos, 2002, 408.)
One of the first questions of the Catechism I knew as a child was: “Where is God?” The answer: “God is everywhere!” So simple that a small child can grasp it yet so profound that we can never exhaust its meaning! If we take that Catechism instruction seriously, we inevitably come to a conclusion that is similarly both simple and profound: Living is being awake! So the doorkeeper in today’s parable is instructed: “Be on the watch .... Keep awake!”
This “being awake” is beautifully ambiguous. It can mean, literally, be conscious and alert. It can also mean awake to being, and thus attentive to and aware of who and what I am. Being awake – understood in this second sense – becomes the ground from which I engage the world of people, events and things. I will be awake to what is. That is more fundamental than what other people – or indeed my own assumptions, expectations and prejudices – tell me. In every situation, my first thought will be an affirmation: “It is!” Judgements may or may not follow.
This kind of “being awake” requires the service of certain ways of knowing. The great spiritual guides point us beyond the common and taken for granted ways of knowing. The Dominican master of the spiritual life, Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), wrote: “One person who has mastered life is better than a thousand persons who have mastered only the contents of books, but no one can get anything out of life without God. If I were looking for a master of learning, I should go to Paris, to the colleges where the higher studies are pursued, but if I wanted to know about the perfection of life, they could not tell me there. Where then should I go? To (someone who has) a nature that is pure and free and nowhere else.” (Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Raymond B Blakney, Harper Torchbooks, 1941, 236.)
Eckhart, not surprisingly, also said that our core task in life is summed up in the words: “Get out of the way and let God be God in you!” Get out of the way so that the noises created by your unrealistic expectations, prejudices, selfishness, greed and craving to be in control, do not deafen you to the gentle voice of the Spirit who speaks constantly to you. Thus St Benedict (480-543) wrote at the beginning of his Rule: “Listen with the ear of the heart.” Get out of the way so that the thicket of unreality you hide behind and the persona that you want others to believe is really you, do not blind you to the loving face of God everywhere, in all things and all circumstances. Thus Richard Rolle (1300-1349) spoke of the purification that is needed so that we can see with “the eye of the heart”. (Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, trans. G. C. Heseltine (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1935), chap. 15, 63.) It is the ear and eye of the heart that hear and see what is.