by Father Mike Stubbs
Some people do not like to drive their car at night. It is more difficult to read street signs and house numbers. Familiar landmarks are enveloped in darkness and lost to sight. A deer can pop out of nowhere and collide with your vehicle.
Two thousand years ago, people were even more reluctant to travel at night. They
didn’t particularly like to travel during the day either, but travel at night posed challenges of its own. After all, there were no street lights. Thieves could be lurking about in the darkness, waiting for a victim to rob. The parable of the good Samaritan, who rescues one such unfortunate, illustrates the dangers of travel during those times: “They stripped and beat him and went off, leaving him for dead” (Lk 10:30).
With travel at night so dangerous, it may strike us as strange that the master in Sunday’s Gospel story is expected to return from his journey sometime during the night (Mk 13:33-37). The exact hour is not known: “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.”
We might note that the suggested times for the man’s return — evening, midnight, cockcrow, early morning — correspond to the various divisions of the night watch according to the Roman reckoning. Those points mark the moment when a sentry standing guard might expect to end his shift, to be relieved by another sentry more rested and wide-awake.
In a sense, all the house servants in Sunday’s parable have been converted into sentries. They all are to remain alert, ready for their master’s return.
While the parable singles out “the gatekeeper to be on the watch,” all the servants have also been assigned their particular duties, “each with his own work.” That doesn’t mean that they have to stay busy 24/7. It does mean that they can’t shirk their work. Otherwise, they won’t be ready for the master’s return, which may happen at any moment. They don’t know exactly when he will come back, and neither do we.
Neither do we know the purpose of his journey. In any case, it must have been something serious and urgent, for him to travel during the night and to be expected to return then. The nighttime aspect of his journey elevates it greatly in importance.
Mark’s Gospel offers us this parable as an allegory of our waiting for Christ’s second coming. Like the house servants of the parable, we also are encouraged to remain watchful and alert, even though we do not know the exact hour of our master’s return.
And that moment involves a paradox. Even though he may return during the night, he will bring with him the day of the Lord, the proverbial time for God to reveal his power to the world.
His arrival will turn the night into day: “Night will be no more, nor will they need light from lamp or sun, for the Lord God shall give them light” (Rv 22:5).