“And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”
I knew it as soon as I smelled it burning from the stove top.
I had failed the one job I was given on Thanksgiving Day: to watch the cranberry sauce.
In a very real sense, I had fallen asleep!
For my attention had wandered, to be sure. When I should have been ‘awake,’ I was, ironically, reading a piece about Advent on my phone and enjoying my sister’s homemade granola for breakfast. More than this, I expect, I was relaxed in a way I had not been in a while. Someone else was in charge of most of the meal. Oh, I had brought along some baking I had done ahead of time, but the rest of it from the roasting bird to the mashed potatoes to the green bean casserole to dessert were being prepared by other capable hands. My sister told me I could make the cranberry sauce and in the
end, we were fortunate she had some frozen from a previous time when too much had been prepared!
And so we come to the invitation and warning Jesus speaks so clearly today, the urgent reminder to ‘keep awake!’, the same one we hear at the start of every Advent. Indeed, for most of my seasons they have filled me with a certain amount of dread. This time, though, I seem to hear them as more promise than threat —even having read what comes before the section we read aloud this weekend in Mark’s Gospel. Indeed, wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines are part of our daily news feed. And while I personally have not experienced physical persecution because of my faith, it surely happens all over the world. As it always has in a world where physical power and wealth continually take precedence over what God would have us be and do again and again.
- And if this is so for me, imagine how it is for the woman who called the church last week wondering if we were giving out Thanksgiving baskets so that she might feed her family this year.
- If this is so for me, imagine how it is for the man I saw bent over walking through the alley behind our church yesterday morning: wrapped up in a burgundy comforter. One I expect he wrapped himself the night before as he slept on the cold ground.
- Indeed, if this is so for me, how much more must the children and of Gaza and Israel and those who seek to protect them, yearn for the end to just finally come so that we might be on the other side of this suffering now.
And so, maybe it is because of where I have been of late and what I have experienced for myself. Perhaps when one comes to a point in one’s life when you have buried enough beloved ones, and when you find yourself walking alongside the suffering of countless others, that all of this life we share here just starts to feel a little more fragile. Maybe, in the end, we all just becomes grateful that there is something promised on the other side of this. And given that it is the ‘Master of the household’ whose return is anticipated, we can surely be more confident that his/her vested interest is in the wellbeing of all of it, of all of us everywhere, so we can surely lean into that with hope.
And leaning into that with hope, it seems to me, allows and enables us to keep living with a different kind of alertness even now. No, indeed, this is not an invitation to give up on the world with all of its pain, but to encounter it with ever clearer eyes. This means that one does not deny the pain in this place we find ourselves now. Keeping awake means that one acknowledges it, one weeps over it and with it and through it, one does what one can to alleviate it when we encounter it in others, and one entrusts it again and again to the One who has promised to return, perhaps sooner than we think. While many across the centuries have chosen to hide away and wait for the return of Christ, particularly if that return seems imminent, this call to stay awake is not to that.
Not even a little.
Indeed, we get a hint of this in the next chapter in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus asks his disciples to sit and wait while he prays at Gethsemane. Three times he returns to them to find them sleeping. The first time they (and we) hear him say, “Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial…” (Mark 14:38)
The disciples here are given one task: to simply stay nearby and awake while Jesus prays for the sort of discernment few of us can imagine. Their call is to pay attention to what Jesus is doing and to recognize their place in the story as they seek to follow him. Indeed, their call is to pay attention to what is playing out before them, to recognize its central importance for themselves and for the world. And you and I know, as we follow their stories, that their ‘keeping awake’ later means working out the meaning of this not only for themselves, but for all those suffering, struggling, hopeful ones they would encounter on their way.
And so here is the lens through which I find I hear Jesus’ words today:
A beloved member of the congregation I serve died two and a half weeks ago.
Unlike so many deaths I witness, hers was sudden and unexpected. After winning at mahjong with friends on a Monday afternoon, she simply collapsed.
An ambulance was called and the hospital was able to keep her on life support until her children and grandchildren arrived to say good-bye
Her memorial service was scheduled for the week of Thanksgiving to accommodate the travel schedules of dear ones. The plan was to host one more family Thanksgiving in her home and preparations were made for just that. When they looked in the freezer they found that she had prepared and frozen a peach pie and an apple pie to be baked for that coming gathering.
And so, they did just that.
Certainly, the suddenness of her death allowed her to be so very present, so very awake, if you will, right to the end. And yet, I have seen others do the same, even knowing what was coming. My own mother, for instance, as long as the pain was kept at bay, welcomed with bright eyes and a smile every person who stepped into her space where she knowingly spent her last weeks. Her ‘keeping awake’ was to and for the hearts of those God gave to her right up until those last hours. I know, for I watched it.
Indeed, these two precious ones experienced the ‘return of the one who had gone on a journey,’ before we will do so collectively, but I have to believe it is the same. And their witness taught me this about ‘keeping awake:’
- It is to live in such a way that one’s love is known and so very present and given away even beyond this life now. Even if it is in something as simple as a couple of frozen Thanksgiving pies.
- And it is to search for the face of God in everyone we encounter and if we can do nothing more any more than just offer a smile, then we do that. And if it is more, we do that, too.
Indeed, you and I hear and seek to heed the call to ‘stay awake’ today.
- To stay awake to the stirring of the Holy One in our own hearts…
- To stay awake to joy and hope and yes, also to suffering and sorrow. In ourselves and in others both.
- To stay awake, knowing, always knowing that the returning One comes with your joy and well-being and the wholeness of the world holding utmost importance. As they always has and always will in the heart of God.
And when we ‘fall asleep,’ as I did with the cranberry sauce a few days ago, we receive the learning as reminder that our ‘staying awake’ matters for our own sakes and perhaps even more so, for all those who will join us at the feast. Indeed, having been awakened once more, we step into a new day with everdeeper wisdom, relying always on the One who keeps waking us up, as Jesus did with the disciples so long ago.
- How do you hear the urging to ‘keep awake’ this Advent? Is it different this year? Why or why not?
- What bearing does it have on how you hear Jesus’ words now to know that the disciples literally ‘fall asleep’ in just the next chapter?
- What stories of ‘keeping awake’ surface for you as you seek to hear this Gospel in a new way? How have you seen this lived out in the living and dying of others?