But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. – Matthew 24:36-44 NRSV
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Advent always catches me off guard. It’s dark and a little bit scary. There’s a reminder of the horror of the flood, people being taken away, and God is compared with a thief. And here I thought we were just getting ready for tiny, smiling, baby Jesus and buying gifts for our family. We get none of that as Advent begins. We get a warning. Stay Awake.
These two words stuck out to me, as I am sure they did for many, on Sunday morning as my pastor read them. It was these two words that caught her attention as well. It’s a command that many of us are attuned to at this moment in our history. For a lot of us our world is quickly becoming a scarier place, and for many others our fears and concerns are being confirmed rapid fire in the words and actions of people. We are hyperaware of the fear and the danger swirling around us, and so many of us are primed for a fight. Stay awake we hear and we tighten our fists and prepare to stand up and defend those in our midst who are targeted by hatred and violence. We hear Stay Awake and we think about Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Standing Rock, Immigrants and Refugees, Muslims, and the LGBTQ community. Stay Awake because oppression shows up while the rest of us are sleeping.
This is a reminder we need, particularly those of us who hold a significant amount of privilege. Our friends in communities of color, and the LGBTQ community, do not have the luxury of falling asleep. They are awake to the violence and oppression they face on a daily basis. But those of us who might not be directly targeted by policies of a certain President Elect, or by the hatred and violence perpetrated in his name, may be tempted to take a break from the outrage and the fear and do something else for the time being. This is a dangerous mistake. This is the kind of silence that contributes to violence and oppression. Stay Awake, Jesus commands. Do not fall asleep while Muslims in this country are threatened with a registry. Do not fall asleep while immigrants in this country are threatened with deportation and arrest. Do not fall asleep as white supremacists bend the ear of the President Elect. As Christians, called to serve and stand with the vulnerable and the targeted among us, we cannot fall asleep. We must stay awake.
This means that we must also Stay Awake in the small details of our own daily lives. It is so simple to become distracted by the noise on the news or to lean heavily on the efforts of large organizing bodies. While the ACLU, water protectors at Standing Rock and Black Lives Matter are doing incredible and critical work which we should support and participate in, it is vitally important that we begin our work in our homes and places of employment and education. Advent is about repentance which requires a turning away from the ways in which we have fallen asleep to our call as followers of Christ. Often the first signs of this turn up in our most intimate relationships; with our partners or spouses, parents or siblings, friends, and even with ourselves. Do we lash out in anger at home while decrying anger in public? Are we becoming lost in the swell of consumerism around Christmas, but neglecting to find gratitude in simplicity and relationships? Are we abandoning our spiritual practice? These things may seem small or trivial in the grander scale of staying awake, but they are incredibly important.
I often joke that I have inherited the family legacy of a quick temper. Unfortunately, in action, it’s not very funny at all. This isn’t the righteous anger of justice, this is the petty anger of inconvenience. I know that it takes extra work on my part to avoid spikes of anger in certain environments or when I do particular things, and if I neglect that work and let my anger drive me I become empty of any ability to feel compassion and empathy. I’m not able to hear the legitimate concerns or fears of another person when I am in the midst of one of my temper tantrums. Blinded by rage is a very accurate description of the effects of anger. But I am reminded by Jesus to Stay Awake. I cannot afford to be blind. I cannot afford to be asleep. I need to be awake to the small daily interactions that require my care and my attention, so that when I am called upon to stand against oppression and injustice I can do so from a place of health.
At the Stand Up For Racial Justice general meeting a few weeks ago the crowd of nearly 800 people were asked to talk to a neighbor about what or where it is that they go to recharge, to rest and recuperate. I was so grateful for this reminder that in the work of standing against oppression it is important that we act out of a place of health. Movements need people, and people simply cannot act when they are emotionally, spiritually, mentally, or physically exhausted. We need to stay awake to our own needs as well. As followers of Christ we are routinely called into difficult and uncomfortable spaces, whether they be in our own relationships, or in the larger pursuit of justice that looks like Jesus. Sometimes praying for our enemies isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be, and we find that we first need to take some time to pray for ourselves. This self-focused work is just as important as the other-focused work we hope to do. They are simply different sides of the same coin.
For me this inner work is centered around the Liturgy of the Hours and Centering Prayer. I have become uniquely attuned to the ways in which I am affected when I neglect my practice. I begin to feel scattered and reactive. My temper flairs quicker and more intensely, and I become much more concerned with myself than with the needs of others. Thomas Keating says about Centering (Contemplative) Prayer:
“Contemplative prayer is a process of interior transformation, a conversation initiated by God and leading, if we consent, to divine union. One’s way of seeing reality changes in this process. A restructuring of consciousness takes place which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists”. *
I have found this wisdom to be true in my own life, experiencing the results even when I fail to understand the process. What I know is that my spiritual practice, the care of my soul, is foundational to my ability to give myself to any endeavor; be it my marriage, a friendship, my work, or the pursuit of justice. This sense of the divine in all things is coupled with a greater sense of humility, born of the realization that all of creation is connected in a beautiful and complicated way. This is why I have been so grateful for the discipline of daily prayer. It has awakened me, and helped me to Stay Awake, to the truth of our interconnectedness, to our collective belovedness, and to my own identity as beloved. For Benedict, it was the discipline of ora et labora, prayer and work. The two are interconnected and each serves to build the other up.
The Gospel reading from the first Sunday in Advent paints a terrifying picture of loss and impending doom. In our day, when so many are seeing doom on the horizon, we must heed the command of Jesus and stay awake. It will be so easy for us to be swallowed by our fear and our anger, and to turn from the important work ahead. Apathy becomes a tempting idea when hope seems lost and power seems absolute. But as followers of Jesus we must stay awake. We must build ourselves up for the work ahead, and we must care for and about those small daily tasks and interactions that empower us to do the work of justice. Our world cannot bear the burden of our slumber. It needs for us to stay awake.
- Keating, Thomas. Open Mind Open Heart. New York, NY.: Continuum, 1991. Print.