Keep awake! Be alert! That’s Jesus’ message in this morning’s Gospel.It is the First Sunday of Advent, the start of the new Church year, and the start of our spiritual preparation for Christmas – this is the ancient, familiar rallying cry for Advent. But keep awake for what? Be alert for what? Aren’t we sleep deprived enough as it is? Isn’t it spiritually and psychologically unhealthy to be “on” twenty-four-seven? There is certainly enough going on in our lives and in our culture all around us to drain us and make us feel like we are sleep-walking through our days. It is that very busyness and pressure and stress that makes us zone out, miss what is really important and good.
Of course, the important and good that is on the horizon is our celebration of the birth of Jesus – God come among us in human flesh – twenty-four days from now. And, in a far more ambiguous time frame, we also look for and prepare for the return of Christ to complete the work that was begun in his ministry, crucifixion and resurrection; it’s what we call Christ’s Second Coming or Second Advent, when we cannot know in what form or mode he will return, but it’s what we hope and long for so that God’s purposes for us and for all Creation may be brought to completion. But in the meantime, in the in-between-time, where does that leave us?
It’s too easy to get swept along with the prevailing cultural messages and make Christmas be all about the sweet little child in the manger “long, long ago” and about enjoying the warmth of family and friends (as good as that is) – and we absolutely should not put ourselves into a spiritual and emotional coma to get to the December 24th deadline. And then it’s even easier not make anything of the Second Coming, just leave it alone, and it will happen one day, someday, maybe……completely out of our consciousness.
So rather than thinking of Jesus’ injunction to keep awake as the equivalent of pulling an all-nighter – after which we will collapse – maybe it is better to think of Advent as a time of looking for Christ in all the ways he shows up in daily life, here and now. Think of it as a time of training – real work and practice for an event that is yet to take place.
If we play an instrument, or sing, or act we know how this goes: you practice your scales and your piece; you memorize your lines, along with their delivery and inflection and blocking; you go to rehearsal and practice with others until the scene or the sonata or anthem is almost second nature; and THEN you are able to be open and ready for the music or the art or the drama or the energy to happen.That is when those who hear or see you will be drawn into what you already know, and that trinity of composer or playwright, performer, and audience will create something much greater and truer than any of the individuals could create on their own – but it takes work and preparation.
Similarly with sports, you practice drills and skills; you work out for endurance and stamina; you get your frame of mind ready so that your head can be in the game on the day; you practice with your team so that each play, each turn, each hand-off can be executed seamlessly and you’ll be ready to face whatever comes at you from the opposing team.
Advent is spiritual training for recognizing and welcoming Christ at Christmas and at the Second Coming, and we train in two major ways.
First, we begin with a collective spiritual check-up by praying the Great Litany. For some people, I know, this is about as much fun as getting a booster shot or taking cod-liver oil – unpleasant, not enjoyable, let’s just get through it. For others, it that feeling of cleaning house, taking inventory, knowing where everything is and what needs to be mended or repaired or adjusted; it can be like taking a long cold drink of clean water that clears your head, as well as your soul.
I guess you can tell how I feel about it! But either way, we start our Advent training by getting true and accurate information about ourselves and where we are with God, and the Great Litany helps us to do that.
Second, during Advent we practice seeing Jesus all around us. We love and serve a God who has taken on human flesh and who, even now, is amongst us and within us; and so we should not be surprised to think that even as Jesus lives in our hearts, we might see him in the face of others. The fourth-century priest, preacher, and later Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom said: “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice”; nor, I would add, in our modern secular Christmas celebrations. It becomes an act of willing intention, to practice seeing Jesus in the face of others, particularly those who annoy us, challenge us, disagree with us, those we find off-putting in a variety of ways.
When I was growing up there was a hardware store right on our Main Street; it sold almost everything, and everyone in town shopped there. One of the employees was a man named John. He always seemed to be a difficult, unhappy person and he made the customers he waited on cranky, as well, and so everyone did their best to avoid him. Our rector, however, would intentionally stand on line at John’s register; he said that he was practicing being loving, seeing the face of Christ. For the priest that meant being kind, respectful, not letting John’s bad mood rub off on him, not returning crankiness for crankiness. I don’t know what effect that had on John, but I know it made a big impression on me; look, I’m still talking about it forty years later!
That’s one tiny example of how we might practicing seeing the presence of Christ, being alert and awake to the ways that God shows up in daily life. Ask the Holy Spirit to show you where you might seek the face of Jesus in your own daily routine. Because if we get practice doing that, then we’ll be able to see so much more clearly and profoundly the Christ who comes to us as Holy Child and the Christ who is yet to come in the fullness of God’s time.
So this Advent we keep awake, we practice, we wait, we prepare and look for the coming of God.
Let us pray.
Lord God, you promised in your tender mercy, the dayspring from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who dwell in darkness and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace. Open the eyes of our hearts to see you now, in this life, and in the last day at the fullness of your appearing. Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday of Advent
November 30, 2014