What Are You Going To Watch?
First Sunday of Advent. Fr Robert Verrill tells us why Jesus’s death on the Cross is a little like television.
Jesus takes watching very seriously. In today’s short Gospel reading, Jesus tells us four times to watch – he’s really hammering it home.
Nowadays if you talk about watching, probably one of the first things that comes to mind is watching TV. In the TV series the Simpsons, Homer Simpson represents the archetypal TV watcher; his daughter Lisa invariably represents the voice of sanity. In one episode, Lisa tells her father ‘It’s not our fault our generation has short attentions spans. We watch an appalling amount of TV.’ Homer replies angrily ‘Don’t you ever, EVER talk that way about television.’
Watching lots of TV changes us. Whether you love it or hate it, television has had a massive impact on modern society. Of the many ways television affects us, one particular way is its ability to keep us awake. It’s generally considered to be a bad idea to watch TV in bed. On the other hand, a person who has a job such as keeping watch over a desolate reception area during the night might be allowed to watch TV to help to stay awake.
In today’s Gospel, when Jesus talks about watching, he’s clearly not talking about light entertainment, but all the same, we need something to help us stay awake and be ready for his second coming. As we read on in Mark’s Gospel, we discover that his disciples really aren’t ready. The next time Jesus talks about watching, he’s in Gethsemane. He knows that in a few hours he’s going to suffer a horrible death. He expresses his deep anxiety to his closest friends and asks them to watch – and they fall asleep.
At the cockcrow, when Peter should have been watching, he’s cursing and denying he ever knew Jesus. Peter, as good as he is, is simply unable to obey Jesus’s request.
This fact should alert us to the nature of this watching we’re supposed to do. It’s not a matter of sheer determination and will power. What Jesus is asking us to do is not possible through our own fragile human nature. We need something to perfect our fallen nature. We need grace. Without this help, we cannot be faithful to God.
The prophet Isaiah expresses the desperate predicament of mankind when he speaks to God: ‘There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities.’ Isaiah pleads with God ‘we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not our iniquity for ever.’
Isaiah’s prayer is answered in Christ’s Passion. The shock of Jesus’s death on the cross is a ‘wake-up call.’ He delivers us from the power of our iniquities. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross we can be vigilant and watchful for the day of his coming.
Anyone who fixes their gaze on Christ crucified becomes receptive to the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit brings about a powerful change in us. We see the power of the Holy Spirit acting in St Peter. He is transformed from being one who would deny Jesus to one who would die for Jesus. In his first letter, St Peter writes ‘Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.’ We now have the power to be watchful and resist the assaults of Satan.
Watching is not just for Advent, but it is particularly appropriate that during this season we should be reminded to be watchful. Christ’s first coming points to his second coming. In the gloom of winter, we are reminded that Christ came into our dark world and died for us, and this moment marks the turning point. The days begin to get longer and we are able to see beyond the darkness and recognise the hope that warms our hearts and lights up our minds.