Gospel for the First Sunday of Advent (29 November 2020)
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 op cit, 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 ones 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.)
How might we receive these “beware”, “wake up” and “stay alert” statements in today’s Gospel – see Mark 13:33-37? Those statements are repeated on three other occasions in that same chapter of Mark’s Gospel. Should we think in terms of warning or invitation, threat or promise?
Recall the most oft-repeated sentiment in the whole Bible: “Do not be afraid!”. See for example Isaiah 41:10 – “Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God” – and 43:1 – I have called you by your name; You are Mine”. John is particularly emphatic about this: “There is no fear in love” (1 John 4:18) and “God is love” (1 John 4:8 & 16). This is of course all implicit in the Great Promise: “I am with you!” – see Exodus 3:1-15. This is at the very heart of the Incarnation - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – and everything we believe as disciples of Jesus.
Although Mark does not have an infancy narrative or account of the birth of Jesus, there is no doubt that he announces the advent of God as a human being. So we read near the beginning of his Gospel, when Jesus is baptized by John: “A voice came from heaven, ‘You are My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased’” (1:11). This manifestation of the Divine Presence will be repeated at the transfiguration, the centre-point of Mark’s Gospel: “A cloud came and overshadowed them; and a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son. Hear Him!’” (9:7). Thus, Mark tells us, “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news’” (1:14-15).
The Good News is that God – Love, Truth, Goodness, the Source of all we desire – is here, for us, in the very depths of all our human experiences. This is Incarnation and it continues down the ages! Jesus – his name means “God saves” – is the Divine Presence. Everywhere. In all people, events and things. All the time.
This is pure gift. The ultimate gift. God is saying to us everywhere, all the time, in all our experiences: “Let me love you into freedom!” We do not – cannot – earn or merit this gift. All we have to do is receive it! How do we do that?
Pay attention! Listen! Beware! Be alert! Wake up! Stay awake! We need to be reminded of this again and again. The staggering truth of God’s Presence in our daily experience easily gets lost in our taken for granted worlds. The mundane, the expected, the routine can promote forgetfulness of the ultimate gift – the gift that alone can fulfil our deepest yearning.
Our ordinary, taken for granted worlds, always carry a rider: “Until further notice!”. This rider is an invitation, one full of promise and opportunity. Our very awareness of it can ready us to recognize the advent of Jesus disguised in our days as someone or something we would normally just take for granted. So stay awake!