Advent 4 (Advent 1B): Mark 13:24-37
The Rev'd Cameron Partridge
December 3, 2023
Good Morning, St. Aidan’s and St. Cyprian’s, and welcome to the fourth Sunday of Advent. The wider church now joins us in this season of anticipation and longing, of waiting with hope for the coming of Christ. Today we step fully into a new Church Year, anchored now by readings from the Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the four canonical witnesses to the life and ministry of Jesus. Amid this shift we continue to make our way in a threshold space and time, called to what Mark describes as alertness or awareness. We are urged to keep awake, to watch for the coming of the Son of Humanity and the in-breaking of God’s just reign. “What I say to you, I say to all,” Jesus intones, “keep awake” (13:37).
Keep awake. What might this look like? How exactly might one practice this? We’ve had several sobering stories over the last weeks about this, stretching back to the first Sunday of our extended Advent observance with Matthew’s parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) that I preached on three weeks ago; to the parable of the talents that Lisa brought before us two weeks ago (Matthew 25:14-30); to the sheep and the goats passage that Weston reflected upon last week (Matthew 25:31-46). Pay attention, we are urged, stay awake, for we only know of Christ’s in-coming arrival, not exactly what will happen or precisely what it will look like. Indeed, as Jesus admits in today’s passage, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). Nevertheless, Mark trains our attention by reminding us of the deeply creational character of this in-breaking reign, this turning of God’s time, with the image of the fig tree (Mark 13:28). Watching its blossoming, we can know something of the nearness of the profound transformation of which Jesus speaks. Several weeks ago, our Wrestling with the Scriptures Bible Study chose a passage two chapters earlier in Mark’s gospel that also references a fig tree (Mark 11:12-14). In that story, Jesus curses such a tree on his way into Jerusalem because it gave him no fruit to eat, and he was hungry (perhaps hangry). The poor tree had withered by the next time Jesus and the disciples had seen it. As we discovered in our wrestling with that passage, the fig tree in the Hebrew Scriptures and their later interpretation could be understood as the original tree in the garden, symbolic of the deep and ultimate fruitfulness of creation. The earlier withering of such a tree and the emergence of its blossoms in our passage, together with references to celestial bodies, signals the transformation and renewal of all things at a scale so vast as to be cosmic. How does one watch for such a transformation in one’s everyday life? By paying attention not only to wider patterns but also to small, everyday things, to the budding of a single blossom.
Or perhaps, as my family can attest, to the whereabouts of a particular beloved cat. As many of you know, we adopted three littermates earlier in the pandemic—a bonded trio named by their previous people (or perhaps the San Francisco SPCA) after percussion instruments: Bongo, Marimba, and Timbale. When we were away for a period in June, just before our friend Iain died, Timbale slipped out on our cat sitter. As soon as he got out, he became extremely elusive, seemingly melting into the San Bruno Mountain landscape. Living as we do with frequent coyote sightings, to say that we were very concerned is a massive understatement. When we returned from our trip, we began to practice an acute watchfulness, longing for his return. We created posters, posted to social media and lost pet websites. We stuffed fliers in our neighbors’ mailboxes. And we talked to everyone around us. Neighbors would tell us about similar cats they saw outside, including our mail carrier (whose name I now know is Ryan) and a couple on the street above us who had lured a bedraggled orange cat into their house one night (both I and the mystery cat scampered out when we determined we were not a match). I created a photo folder in my phone entitled “Not My Cat.” Our watchfulness added in a home security camera—now we could surveil the creatures who saunter down our walkway at various times of the day and night: multiple neighbor cats (whose names we know or have now made up), an occasional possum, and an alarming number of racoons. But no Timbale.
Then, much to our amazement, in early September, when a neighbor texted Kateri a photo that actually was Timbale, it became clear that he was still around. A blossom on the fig tree. And so we began watching all the more closely, leaving food and fresh water out (chasing away the racoons), checking the video feed. In early October (actually, looking at a date-stamped photo, it was late September) we began to see him coming to our door, furtively eating and drinking, never allowing himself to be seen live. One mid-October night after he started meowing to Kateri in the driveway, she almost lured him in by Hansel and Gretel treat trail. As his returns grew more frequent, we began what we called open door training. Already we had come to think of Timbale in Advent terms, but now the watching and waiting in the threshold truly became an acutely literal practice. One afternoon in November, as he ate furtively in our entryway, I tried to close him into the house only to shut the door on the end of his tail. I was devastated, convinced he would never return. But over several days, gradually he did.
How, though, to assist him to come in, to come home without hurting him? How to collaborate with his Advent in-breaking? With deep, deep patience. Kateri started saying “there’s chronos time; there’s kairos time; and then there’s gatos time” (or technically singular 'gato'…). Thanksgiving week he started allowing us to pet him again, early in the morning, late in the evening, pushing his forehead into our hands and purring, but not allowing us to pick him up. Thanksgiving Day he sat in my lap for about twenty minutes, and I had him in my arms, briefly, as I was on my knees just in front of the open door. But I couldn’t figure out how to get him in on my own, and he started squirming, so I opened my arms and let him go. I thought, I hope I’m doing the right thing! But I can’t force it. I can’t force it. Finally, this past Wednesday evening, I sat next to the open doorway, facing into the house. For over an hour I sat there, giving treats in the threshold, petting him. Kateri sat on the stairs below, talking to him. He got into my arms and settled a little bit. I put my right arm over him and held my breath. Kateri slowly and calmly came up the stairs, and I held him a little more tightly. And she closed the door.
As soon as it clicked shut, I burst into shaking sobs. Yes, they were tears of joy, but they were much more than that. So much has happened these last several months. So much loss that cannot be retrieved, so much we in this community have experienced, especially this last year. So much grief has this cat borne. Yet somehow also carried by this cat, is a reminder of possibility, of hope for renewal, of new life emerging from death. Of neighbors coming together in support of a grieving family. Of community gathering in love, as we have done in this place for so many, including those we have lost to HIV/AIDS as we will hear further about today, and including Kathy O’Loughlin who asked so often after this cat and whose life we will celebrate this afternoon. And so, dear friends, I thank you. I thank you for walking and watching with me. May we together remember the power of prayerful watching this Advent, truly believing and knowing that, in the words of Arundhati Roy and sung by Ana Hernandez, “another world is not only possible: she is on her way.”
 William Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 159-160, 191.