Staying Awake: An Advent Reflection
As part of my slow-down-in-Advent practice, I’ve joined a group to practice Lectio Divina together once a week. Each Monday they gather at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, and one of their pastors leads us in reading and meditating on the lectionary text for the coming Sunday.
As I spent time with the words of Jesus in Mark 13.24-37 last week, I was struck by this scene:
“It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to keep watch. Therefore, keep awake – for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
The words that kept standing out to me were “keep awake.” But these words did not strike me as good news. As spiritual as I wanted to be, the burning question in my mom-of-two-toddlers mind was: What’s so bad about falling asleep??
Now, I highly doubt that Jesus is advocating that we never sleep and turn into zombies. Quite the contrary, he’s the one who teaches us how to really rest. We have been created to sleep for a full one third of our lives. Scripture teaches us that we can rest because God is good and always at work, so we don’t have to be. So Jesus – what’s so bad about falling asleep?
With this question echoing through my mind, I imagined myself as the doorkeeper in Jesus’ story. What if I did fall asleep at my post? What would happen if I was woken from a dead sleep when the master came home? I imagined myself sleeping soundly, when suddenly a figure appeared looming over me. I doubt my first response would be kind or gracious. In fact, it would be the opposite. I can see myself springing into defensive action, assuming this was an intruder. In my attempt to protect my master’s belongings from this “thief,” I would be attacking the master himself.
And then I thought how the scenario would play out differently if I, the doorkeeper, was awake. If I were awake, I would see the light from the master’s lamp when he was still a long way down the road. I would study the pace and be able to discern if this was a person who knew the way, or a person who was moving hastily and didn’t want to be seen. As the master approached he would probably call out some kind of greeting or password to let me know it was him so I could open the door and he didn’t have to fumble for the keys. Maybe there was special knock he used to let me know it was him. But even if I missed all that, and he got to the door before I did – I would hear the sound of keys jangling, the door swinging open instead of being knocked down, maybe even dogs scampering with tails thumping to greet their master.
In this scenario, I’m alert and aware. I have the presence of mind to greet the master warmly, and depending on how long ago I recognized him coming, I may even have some food or a cup of tea waiting for him. I will have thought about what he wants to know right when he gets home, and will be prepared to give the initial report.
And then I understood what Jesus was advocating. Of course he doesn’t want me to never sleep. But he wants me to be aware, alert, watching, actively anticipating his arrival.** And if I’m not, I will miss it altogether and may even work against it.**
In a letter to a friend in December, 1979, Father Henri Nouwen wrote these words to his friends:
“Happy times, Blessed Christmas and a very good new year. I hope that all the misery in the country and the world in general will deepen your hope for the kingdom of god, will strengthen your eschatological [the hopeful future of God] perspective, will make you more interested in the last book of the Bible, will make you more critical toward psychology and political sciences, will make you simple of mind and heart, make you pray more and love more and make your heart and mind open toward Him who is the Lord of life and who calls us to transcend all human endeavors.”
(from Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life)
This is my prayer for us as well. I think this is what happens in us when we choose to stare into the darkness rather than distract ourselves from it, or simply shutting down and falling asleep. And as we strain to see light coming through the darkness, we will see it a long way off. We will anticipate its arrival. We will celebrate it. And when it finally dawns complete – oh how we will rejoice!
without distraction, without turning away.
This Advent, train our eyes to watch for, to anticipate,
and to rejoice at your coming.
And please come soon, Lord Jesus. Come soon.