Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (1 December 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour (Matthew 24:37-44 – NRSV).
Luke has a similar passage in 17:26-27 & 34-35. Mark has no parallel to this passage from Matthew. Though Mark 13:33-37 does cover the same themes of the end time and the need for vigilance.
Harrington goes on to argue that the material that Matthew has added here in his expansion of Mark, “overloads” the theme of constant vigilance: “The theme of constant vigilance in view of uncertainty regarding the time of the Son of Man’s coming is expanded by Matthew with material taken mainly from Q: the parable of the days of Noah (Matt 24:37–39 = Luke 17:26–27), the twin parable about two men in the field and two women at the mill (Matt 24:40–41 = Luke 17:34–35), the parable about the householder and the thief (Matt 24:43–44 = Luke 12:39–40), and the parable of the two servants (Matt 24:45–51 = Luke 12:41–46). The exhortation to watchfulness (Matt 24:42) is taken over from Mark 13:35, and the whole of Matt 24:37–51 can be seen as an expanded version of Mark 13:33–37. Whereas the point of Mark’s neatly balanced structure was to suggest an evenhandedness between the signs taking place in ‘this generation’ and uncertainty about the time of the Son of Man’s coming, Matthew has shifted the structure toward the theme of constant watchfulness in the face of uncertainty regarding the time of the Son of Man’s coming” (D J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 344-345).
The theme of “watchfulness” that Matthew urges, rather than “expectation of a specific time”, may be a response to the scoffing of those who ridiculed the Christians for their belief in an unfulfilled timeline. We pick up something of this same struggle in the Second Letter of Peter: “First of all you must understand this, that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and indulging their own lusts and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!” (2 Peter 3:3-4).
For as the days of Noah were: The total surprise is the key here. This is emphasized by references to “the two in the field”, “the two women grinding meal” and “the owner of the house”. It is impossible to set timelines on God’s actions. This echoes a primary theme in the Decalogue where the sovereignty of God is paramount – see Exodus 20:1-17 and Deuteronomy 5:1-21.
coming: The Greek word is parousia. The idea of “a day that is coming” dates from the Book of Daniel – about 167-164 BCE. Daniel has several timelines – see 7:25, 8:13, 9:27, 12:7, 12:11 and 12:12. Harrington writes: “Given the apocalyptic context of Daniel with its hopes for a new age and the fullness of God’s kingdom, it is not surprising that there should develop in Jewish apocalyptic circles a fascination with calculating the apocalyptic timetables” (Ibid). By the end of the first century, the word parousia had become identified with the return of Jesus Christ. Harrington writes: “Matthew’s twin emphasis on the uncertainty about when the Son of Man will come and the attitude of constant watchfulness in the meantime has shaped mainline Christian theology through the centuries. Careful analysis of Matt 24:32–51 shows how he developed this approach out of even earlier traditions. In the encounter with (nonapocalyptic) Judaism after A.D. 70 one can also see how Christianity became a major vehicle for the survival of apocalypticism. This Christian apocalypticism, however, is not given to speculations and timetables. While retaining a strong faith in God’s direction of history and a hope that it will mean the vindication of the just, Matthew made them into a framework for Christian action in the present. Thus he brought about union between eschatology and ethics. Christians should always act as if the coming of the Son of Man were near” (Harrington, op cit, 346-347).
eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage: A statement of the ordinary. Life goes on. In the ordinary, we must be attentive, alert to the fact that it is precisely in the ordinary that Jesus is coming. We can interpret that in two ways. Firstly, it can mean that “Jesus is going to appear” – that is it is a statement of a future happening. Secondly, it can mean that “Jesus is already appearing” – that is it is a statement about the present moment. These are not mutually exclusive interpretations.
Keep awake therefore: Watchfulness is the logical conclusion from the foregoing. This calls for creative waiting rather than rigid expectations.
What is it about the ‘ordinary’ that does not (normally) attract us, maybe it even repels us? Do you ever deliberately pay attention to the ‘ordinary’? Resistance to the ‘ordinary’ seems to have gained more impetus today. And so we expect people, events and things to bring something extraordinary into our lives. Our resistance to the ‘ordinary’ might also have something to do with our reticence to commit ourselves to much. Commitment demands repetition and a constant return to the ‘ordinary’.
One modern author offers a reflection on our times: “Why is it that a man riding a good commuter train from Larchmont to New York, whose needs and drives are satisfied, who has a good home, loving wife and family, good job, who enjoys unprecedented 'cultural and recreational facilities,' often feels bad without knowing why? .... Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?” (Walker Percy, "The Delta Factor" in The Message in the Bottle, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981, 4 & 6-7).
The very notion of the ‘ordinary’ implies that it is what we are most likely to encounter in any given day. To dismiss the ‘ordinary’ as of no significance therefore, or to simply tolerate it, is to miss most of what our lives have to offer. For our own wellbeing, it behoves us to develop a positive attitude to the ‘ordinary’.
It seems that the early Christians also had to be reminded of this simple truth. In today’s Gospel – Matthew 24:37-44 – Jesus responds to their concerns about God’s timeline for the world. In effect, Jesus tells them that God works within the ordinary stuff of life – people “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage”, people working at their various tasks – so they should pay attention to what is going on in and around them. Be prepared for some surprises.
The spiritual guide, Jean-Pierre de Caussade SJ (1675-1751), offers some good advice: “All creatures that exist are in the hands of God. The action of the creature can only be perceived by the senses, but faith sees in all things the action of the Creator. It believes that in Jesus Christ all things live, and that His divine operation continues to the end of time, embracing the passing moment and the smallest created atom in its hidden life and mysterious action. .... This same Jesus, ever living, ever working, still takes by surprise those souls whose faith is weak and wavering. There is not a moment in which God does not present Himself under the cover of some pain to be endured, of some consolation to be enjoyed, or of some duty to be performed. All that takes place within us, around us, or through us, contains and conceals His divine action” (Jean Pierre de Caussade, Abandonment to Divine Providence, (E J Strickland B Herder Books, 1921, 15).
God waits for us in every moment of everyday, disguised in the ‘ordinary’.