“Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”
Is what Scripture has to say to us at the start of Advent. “Keep awake.”
We have been hearing it over and over again in the lectionary over the past few weeks:
From the Gospel of Matthew: “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
And in 1 Thessalonians: “So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…”
As we approach the end of a tumultuous year though, many of us are exhausted. What are we to do with this insistence from Scripture to stay awake? Isn’t it the time of year to pull on a Christmas sweater, drink hot chocolate, and fall asleep watching A Miracle on 34th Street? Scripture seems to suggest otherwise, and I think these lectionary readings are an invitation to rediscover and rethink what Advent can be: a time of anticipation, discernment, and self-discipline.
During my first year of seminary, my professors were quick to point out that Advent is not about this nostalgic spell cast by corporations that culminates on Christmas Day. Advent is about the apocalypse.
The name “Advent” was adopted from the Latin word “adventus,” which means “coming” or “arrival.” It is the word used to translate the Greek word “parousia.” In the New Testament, this is the term used for the Second Coming of Christ. Just as we await Christ’s birth in Bethlehem, we await the End Times. Accompanying the insistence to “keep awake” is the language of God’s judgement.
Awareness of the apocalypse is what drives the narrative in the Gospel of Mark. It is the shortest Gospel account and Jesus is portrayed as a man in a hurry. The word “immediately” is used 41 times by Mark. Alongside this sense of impending doom is the unshakable feeling that something is very wrong with the world. There’s the growing shadow of Roman occupation, but it’s also deeper than that–something’s off about human nature. The hope for the apocalypse speaks to this. Soon, very soon, the Son of Man will come to gather his elect.
The passage from Mark presents us with three vivid images to convey Jesus’ message about the apocalypse. Let’s consider each of them and see how they might invite us into deeper relationship with God as we keep awake this Advent.
The first image is one of total darkness: the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall. Then, in this darkness, we will see the Son of Man coming in clouds. It is almost as if the light of the celestial bodies is distracting. What is their power compared to the power and glory of the Son of Man?
Advent, in our current culture, can be a distracting time: the rush of holiday shopping, scrambling to put up decorations, and final exam season, to name a few things. The busyness of Santa’s workshop that can be seen in so many holiday films is an apt metaphor for the American Christmas that emerged in the early 1900s. There seems to be this cultural amnesia of how Christmas is a 12-day feast beginning on Christmas Eve and ending on Epiphany. Advent used to be a time of quiet preparation, reflection, and fasting.
In Mark’s image of total darkness, there is an invitation to ask ourselves what is distracting in our lives. What has been lost and must be found again? In complete darkness with only the light of our consciousness and our faith, we can often see our own thoughts with great clarity. This mindfulness and practice of recognizing distractions will prepare us for the coming of the Son of Man.
The second image is one of a fig tree that becomes tender and puts forth leaves when summer is near. When the Son of Man is near, there will be signs and we will know he is coming. This image of ripening makes me ask what happens to the faithful as we anticipate his coming. Paul writes in the reading from 1 Corinthians today, “…the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you–so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Just as the fig tree readies itself to bear fruit when summer is near, spiritual gifts ripen during times of preparation and reflection.
The spiritual gifts discussed in 1 Corinthians are as follows: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, tongues, and interpretation of tongues. What gifts does God seek to ripen in you during Advent as you wait for the revealing of Jesus Christ? Are there gifts that have gone dormant that need dusting off or awakening?
The third image is of the doorkeeper keeping watch for the master of the house, who has gone on a journey. No one knows the day or the hour the master, a metaphor for the Son of Man, will return though Mark does say he will return sometime between evening and morning. The four nocturnal watches the Romans observed are named: evening, midnight, cockcrow, and dawn.
There is a certain gravity to this watchfulness. Jesus says, “Beware, keep alert,” “keep awake,” and warns against falling asleep on the job. It seems to be of utmost importance that the doorkeeper be awake when the master comes back. Keeping watch for Jesus and being prepared for the apocalypse are acts of worship and faithfulness. I am reminded of two prayers from the Great Litany:
“From all oppression, conspiracy, and rebellion; from violence, battle, and murder; and from dying suddenly and unprepared,
Good Lord, deliver us.
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and submission to the Law; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.”
It’s most likely not a coincidence that a prayer naming the Incarnation and holy Nativity comes immediately after a prayer asking for deliverance from violence and being unprepared.
With this in mind, ask yourself what you can do to better prepare for the coming of Jesus. Part of this is staying awake to your own needs. As Pastor Jane asked us earlier this month, do you have oil for your lamps? And, yes, despite this insistence on staying awake, are you sleeping enough? Self care and staying awake to our own needs, as well as fighting and advocating for being able to take care of ourselves, is preparation and caring for others.
We don’t anticipate Jesus’ coming during Advent because we need more material things or busyness. Advent speaks to deeper needs for spiritual gifts and freedom from sin and oppression. As my Dean at Berkeley Divinity School said once with amusement and concern, “we may even need Jesus to free us from what now passes as Christmas.”
Many early Christians lived their lives thinking that Jesus’ second coming would occur during their lifetimes. We often see Paul grappling with this expectation in his letters.
When that generation passed, Christians continued keeping watch during Advent, like the doorman waiting for the master of the house to return.
Stay awake this Advent. Discern what is distracting and cultivate your spiritual gifts. Take care of yourselves; take care of each other. When Jesus returns, let’s not let him find us asleep to our own lives and faith.
Keep awake. Amen.