Beware, Keep Alert, Keep Awake – Br. James Koester
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We begin today, not simply a new liturgical year, with the beginning of the season of Advent, but we begin to read our way through a new gospel. This is the year when we read our way through the Gospel According to Mark over the course of the year.
Mark’s gospel is significant for several reasons. Historians believe that it was probably written for a gentile audience, in Rome, about the year AD 70, making it the oldest of the four gospels. As the first of the gospels to take written form, it is also thought that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source when they wrote their gospels in the two or three decades that followed. When biblical scholars place each of these three gospels side by side, they are able to trace the influence that Mark had on the other two.
Mark’s gospel is also significant for what it does not contain. There is no birth story in Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke, or any pre-existent theology, as we find in John. Jesus simply appears like an actor on a stage, in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John. Scholars will also point out that there are not one, but three endings to the gospel and it is believed that it originally ended without any reference to an appearance of the Risen Lord, but simply stated so [the women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
At just sixteen chapters, Mark is also the shortest of the four gospels, and so compared to the others, Mark’s gospel is quite spare. While Matthew and Luke take their time to set the scene and tell the story, Mark’s gospel is bare bones, and he seems to race through various events in the life of Jesus with a minimum of words. The bare bones style of storytelling gives Mark’s gospel a sense of urgency, that I sometimes find breathtaking. Racing through the story as Mark does, leaves me breathless and panting. At the same time as I read it, I am caught up in it as I recognize the urgency of Mark’s message.
It is this urgency that is most apparent to me this morning. There is no time to doddle, as my father would say. We must keep awake and be prepared to act in an instant. “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” Beware. Keep alert. Keep awake.
It’s clear from other places in Mark’s gospel, but the others as well, there was a common belief among the early Christians that Jesus’ return was imminent. It would happen any day. As the days stretched on with no sign of Jesus’ Second Coming the understanding of what this might mean began to shift and change. Most of us have now lost any sense of urgency when it comes to Jesus Second Coming. Yes, as Christians we believe that it will happen, but few of us expect it any time soon, never mind in our lifetimes. This command to beware, keep alert, keep awake has little power among us. We are lulled into an attitude of casualness where we believe that we have all the time in the world. This command to beware, to keep alert, to keep awake doesn’t hold much weight. It is largely irrelevant, and the urgency that it implies easily dismissed.
Except that it isn’t.
With over 13 million people who have contracted COVID, 91,000 currently in hospital, more than at any other time in this pandemic, and nearly 270,000 deaths in this country alone, this command to beware, to keep alert, to keep awake is neither irrelevant, nor easily dismissed. We don’t have all the time in the world. Death, disease, sickness can come upon us any time. This week alone we Brothers have heard of three friends, all of whom have tested positive for the virus. The phrase that we find in The Great Litany: from all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us is not quaint, or slightly old fashioned. Today it has all too true a ring about it. Perhaps what is strange is not the urgency we see in today’s gospel, or the petitions in The Great Litany, but our casual attitude to life, time, eternity, and even to the Second Coming of the Lord. We may not literally see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory but the possibility of our own deaths in the not too distant future is suddenly all too real. From dying suddenly and unprepared, Good Lord, deliver us.
We say in our Rule of Life that, [we]are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial. Paradoxically, only those who remember that they are but dust, and to dust they shall return, are capable of accepting the presence of eternal life in each passing moment and receiving ever fresh the good news of hope. The anticipation of death is essential if we are to live each day to the full as a precious gift, and rise to the urgency of our vocation as stewards who will be called to give account at Christ’s coming. Remembering that death can come to us at any time will spur us to be prepared, by continual renewal of our repentance and acceptance of the forgiveness of God, to meet Christ without warning. We shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation.
While statements such as: [we]are called to remember our mortality day by day with unflinching realism, shaking off the sleep of denial may make us uncomfortable, they can also help us live with the vitality and integrity, that comes with a sense of urgency. If we don’t believe that the end is near, then it doesn’t matter how we live, after all, whatever messes we have made, we can clean them up tomorrow, or whenever, as the case may be. But if the end is coming, if it is near, then how we live, and the mess we have made in our own lives, and in the lives of others, needs to be cleaned up, not whenever, or tomorrow, or even later today, but right now. Remembering that death can come to us at any time will spur us to be prepared, by continual renewal of our repentance and acceptance of the forgiveness of God, to meet Christ without warning. We shall remember to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation.
The urgency that Mark portrays in today’s gospel, and which our Rule encourages, may seem unnecessary, even perhaps morbid, to our contemporary ear, but if this pandemic has taught us one thing, it is how much we depend on one another for encouragement, support, and community. And as we Brothers know only too well, community is a fragile organism that can only survive where thankfulness and reconciliation are allowed to thrive. So much has been taken away from us in these last nine months, and it happened in the blink of an eye. One Sunday we were here, gathered with our retreatants, neighbours, friends, and members of the congregation, as we celebrated the Eucharist together. The next Sunday all that was taken away from us, and we prayed behind locked doors. Had we had known what was about to happen, what might we have said that Sunday before the lockdown began?
We remind ourselves that Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ in time, as the Babe of Bethlehem and Saviour of the World, and at the end of time, as the Judge and Redeemer of all. Because we know not the day, nor the hour, it is easy for us to lose a sense that there is anything urgent for us to do. Except now we know there is. Everything we hold dear can be taken from us in an instant. The pandemic and lockdown have taught us that.
Mark tells us, our Rule teaches us, and now our experience shows us, that there are some things which cannot be delayed, must not be put off, lest we lose the opportunity forever. It is urgent that we take those opportunities to express to one another those things that would make us ready to part without regrets, especially thankfulness and reconciliation.
When we live with a sense of urgency, knowing there may be no time but this moment for expressions of thankfulness and reconciliation, we will live with vitality and integrity, because we will be living lives of awareness, alert and awake, to the breaking in of God, and the coming of Jesus into our lives as Saviour, Redeemer, and Judge.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Year B, First Sunday of Advent
 Mark 1: 9
 Mark 16: 8
 Mark 13: 32, 37
 Book of Common Prayer, 1979, The Great Litany, page 149
 Mark 13: 26
 SSJE, Rule of Life, Holy Death, chapter 48, page 96 – 97
 Matthew 25: 13
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I was struck by most all of what you say, but the last few words, “. . . the breaking in of God. . .” has special meaning to me. Thanks — so much.
I had a unique experience of being told by a team of doctors that I was in the most tenuous heslth situation possible! Transferring me to another building in this we’ll known Boston Medical Center- the team, up to and including the Chief-were in a state of highest urgency. YetI reacted not with my usual anxiety, but with alertness. I was not alone. Jesus was beside me. On the gurney being wheeled into the ambulance, I looked at the beautiful blue summer sky and prayed with joy, “Thank you Lord! I’ve so loved life!”
At age 94, I am finally blessed with the sense of urgency. Thank you, SSJE , for the pamphlet on Spiritual Eucharist which lets me join with you in prayer.
Wow!!!!! That. Really moved me- in so many ways!!
How true…. all of it!
Bob and I missing you brothers so much and count the days ( if only we knew how many) until we are together again with you at the Monastery!????????????????????