I remember riding in the back of the car as a child, peering through the front seats wondering when we would arrive. “Are we there yet?” my sister and I would ask our parents repeatedly. Watching and waiting are the occupation of childhood. Children always know how many months until their birthdays, how many days until Christmas, how many hours until the movie starts. But while they often know the number, their sense of time is not as keen, and so they are always on the lookout.
We wait in this same state of anticipation at the coming of our Savior this Christmas. In Advent the Church prepares us to receive Him, not only on December 25, but on the day of His second coming. The Scripture readings tell us to wake up, watch, and ready ourselves for the end of the world. But how? What does it mean to watch for our Lord?
In “Watching,” St. John Henry Newman asks his listeners to reflect on those questions, because Christ Himself, and his apostles, are insistent about watching. Here is a small sample of these warnings:
- Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. – Mark 13:33
- But take heed to yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times… – Luke 21:34-36
- Be watchful, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. – 1 Cor. 16:13
The warnings are stern, the consequences grave. Newman calls this action of watching the main difference between consistent Christians and inconsistent Christians.
To watch is to seek eagerly, untiringly, for a coming person or event. Newman defines it with analogies: “Do you know the feeling in matters of this life, of expecting a friend, expecting him to come, and he delays? Do you know what it is to be in unpleasant company, and to wish for the time to pass away, and the hour strike when you may be at liberty? Do you know what it is to be in anxiety lest something should happen which may happen or may not, or to be in suspense about some important event, which makes your heart beat when you are reminded of it, and of which you think the first thing in the morning?”
There is nothing passive about this kind of watching. “He watches for Christ who has a sensitive, eager, apprehensive mind; who is awake, alive, quick-sighted, zealous in seeking and honouring Him; who looks out for Him in all that happens, and who would not be surprised, who would not be over-agitated or overwhelmed, if he found that He was coming at once.” Notice also, besides an absence of passivity, there is an absence of anxiety in the modern sense. The one watching is not “over-agitated.” One thinks immediately of the father from the parable of the Prodigal Son. He saw his son a far way off. There is a steadiness and yet eagerness in his watching.
To watch is also to remember. In the case of a loved one, when we remember special likes and dislikes, events, and memorable stories, we communicate our care and love for them. To watch for Christ is to ponder his whole life, past and present, allowing the painful and glorious moments to have their place. To Newman, the one who watches is alert to the full human experience of Christ. “… faith is always sorrowing with Him while it rejoices. And the same union of opposite thoughts is impressed on us in Holy Communion, in which we see Christ’s death and resurrection together …” For those who do not watch, only what occupies them presently matters (and usually it is material things).
Failing to watch is a subtle trap to fall into. Those who do not watch are not openly rebellious; on the contrary, they believe in God and even seek Him. It is the manner of their seeking Newman finds wanting. He says, “It is not that they forget God, or do not live by principle, or forget that the goods of this world are His gift; but they love them for their own sake more than for the sake of the Giver, and reckon on their remaining, as if they had that permanence which their duties and religious privileges have.”
Will we be ready to receive Christ when He comes again? Or are we too attached to earthly things? Are we ready to meet Christ, or do we wish to simply escape present circumstances? Are we watching for Him with passivity or anxiety? In Advent we prepare to celebrate His First Coming as a Child, and we look forward to His Second Coming in glory. Advent is the time to examine our conscience with the words of Scripture and these thoughts from St. John Henry Newman, that we might prepare ourselves to receive Him at this great feast. Watching for Him may mean any number of small, but important gestures, like a few minutes of Scripture reading each day, visiting Him in the Blessed Sacrament, or repeating some aspirations throughout the day. Whatever our demonstration of love, we can be sure Our Lord is also watching for us, for our desire for Him can never match His desire for us.