The liturgical season of Advent begins with a Gospel reading that is taken from the latter half of Mark’s Gospel. Traditionally, we start the cycle of readings for the season of Advent with a Gospel reading situated towards the end of the ministry of Jesus, and where Jesus speaks of the last things and his return.
Here is Mark 13:33-37,
Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.
It is like a man traveling abroad.
He leaves home and places his servants in charge,
each with his own work,
and orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.
you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming,
whether in the evening, or at midnight,
or at cockcrow, or in the morning.
May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.
What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”
What is most notable about this passage is the number of times Jesus tells us to stay alert – four, to be exact. In fact, Jesus uses three different words in the original Greek translation: blepete, agrupneite and gregoreite. “Blepete” is an imperative that means look! or see! But in this context it means beware! Or, take heed! “Agrupneite” is an imperative that means stay awake! But it can also be translated be watchful! Or, be alert! “Gregoreite” means, quite literally, be on alert! Or, be on the watch!
The First Week of Advent and the Last Things.
During the season of Advent, we await the birth of Jesus with the same anticipation that we would await his second coming. In fact, this Sunday’s reading in chapter 13 of Mark looks an awful lot like chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew, which were the readings for the last few weeks of November and concluded the previous liturgical year.
It is standard practice in most Christian churches to use an eschatological Gospel reading (from Mark 13, for example) for the first Sunday in Advent. This is to maintain continuity with the close of the previous liturgical year. This sense of an eschatological relationship between Advent and the Triumph of Christ (the triumph being both the Resurrection and the anticipation of the Second Coming) has been understood by Christians for centuries.
The idea is captured in a painting by the Flemish artist Hans Memling. Painters of the fifteenth century Flemish (Dutch) school showed a good understanding of their faith and tried to convey a story with their art. Eschatology was of great interest to the Flemish painters, as the monumental works the Last Judgment (Van Eyck: New York Metropolitan Museum of Art), the Mystical Lamb, (Van Eyck: Cathedral of Ghent, Belgium), and another Last Judgment (Memling: Gdansk) testify.
Memling’s Advent and the Triumph of Christ shows multiple scenes from the life of Jesus. On the left side of painting are scenes from the birth of Christ, while the right side shows scenes from the concluding chapters of the Gospels. On the left side of the painting, their are depictions of the Annuciation, the Visitation, and the appearance of the angel to the shepherds. In the center is the Nativity. On the right side, we see the Resurrection, the Ascension (in the background) and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles (Pentecost). There are other scenes depicted in the background as well.
A Reading from the Book of Isaiah
The Gospel for the first week of Advent is paired with an Old Testament reading from Isaiah 64:7-9, where the prophet tells us:
There is none who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to cling to you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have delivered us up to our guilt.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.
Isaiah spoke a truth to the people of Israel in the time of the Old Testament – that the face of God was inaccessible to them. Prior to the birth of Christ, no human had seen God. Abraham encountered types for the Trinity, travelling incognito, under the terebinth of Mamre. Jacob wrestled with an angel. But when Moses spoke to God, even the greatest Old Testament figure could not view God face-to-face.
During the season of Advent, we hope for the coming of Emmanuel. Only then will we be able to set our eyes upon the face of God. Isaiah further tells us that we are the clay and [God] the potter. Jesus is both the clay and the potter – both God and human. He is the means by which the Father intended our salvation. In order to save us, God deigned to become like us.
Second Sunday of Advent: Mark 1:1-8
Third Sunday of Advent: John 1:6-28