The sun is setting. The night has begun. The season of Advent marks the start of the new Church year, and, like the Jewish day that begins once the sun has descended, our year begins with the night season.
Advent is a season of looking ahead. We anticipate the coming of the Lord both in our looking forward to the commemoration of his birth, as well as our hopeful belief in his coming again. It is, therefore, a season of the affirmation of our Christian faith and joy.
But the night is dark. The night is cold, and lonely, and we have not been given leave to rest until the warm embrace of the new dawn. Indeed, it is exactly the opposite. Christ gives us the order: “Keep awake.”1 Our Lord gives us this command, to keep watch at the door for his return. He does not even give us the time of his coming back, assuring us only that “about that day or hour no one knows.”1 There is no known end to the tunnel, no hour at which we can punch out and leave our shift at the night watch. We simply must watch, and wait. And lest we think we might have the sweet comfort or stimulating diversion of impermanent things, Christ tells us that “heaven and earth shall pass away.”1 All things will crumble; all things will fade.
We, in our own human frailty, are not immune to this crumbling either. “We all fade like a leaf,”2 Isaiah writes, and we need only look outside to see how that ends. The hopeful bud becomes lush and green and sturdy, and then crescendos in the vibrant beauty of red, yellow, purple, and orange. And then comes the cold, and the dark. Dull gray-brown, limp, desiccated…overall, a sorry, unimpressive, and wholly inadequate watchman in the night. Isaiah also proclaims to God, “You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways.”2 How many of us can say this of ourselves, truly, and wholly? I can’t. I try. With great strength and intention, I try. But, however much effort I put forth, eventually, my head begins to nod. My eyelids droop. My knees shake and buckle. My arms hang lower and lower at my sides. The forces of sin and death prowl around under the cover of darkness, waiting for the chance to strike their chosen prey. It is night. I am tired. And ultimately, I make for a very poor watchman.
A question presents itself. Just what am I watching for? What are we all watching for? Isaiah and the Psalmist both appeal to God for signs,2, 3 and Jesus responds.1 He assures us that, with vigilance, we will know when his return is upon us. The heavens will be torn open, the mountains will quake, the sun and moon will fade and the shining countenance of God will replace their light. All creation will respond; all creation looks to the coming of the Lord. And yet, in the early hours of the night watch, that gives little clarity or comfort. I do not know how the heavens will look when torn asunder. I do not know how the great lights of the sky can dim. I do not know the shining countenance of God. Not yet. Not fully. Advent is a season of looking forward. But sometimes there is no coherent response to the question, “What are you looking forward to?” Sometimes the only true answer we can muster is anger, and sighing, and bafflement, and tears.
At the other end of our chapel, there is a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ. With one hand, Jesus grabs at his mother’s breast, directly above her heart. She looks to her child with serenity and adoration, with the knowledge that she is holding the only thing that could truly be described as precious. But more importantly, this precious child is holding her. Christ has arrived, and he grips his mother’s heart.
Jesus, though, does not return her gaze. He looks outward, and downward. His face is calm, but not uninterested. Indeed, he looks on with purpose and an authoritative brow. When one stands in front of the statue, the brow looks low and stern, and casts a shadow over Christ’s eyes. But when one kneels, Christ’s countenance is changed. The eyes are cast into light, and a stern brow becomes one of concern without losing its authority. With his other hand, Jesus reaches out. His arm is not overeager. It is not grotesquely stretched, distended with impatient desperation. The delicate hand of the Almighty child hovers in the air, with clear purpose. In the heart of the Holy Mother of God, Christ gives us an unmistakable sign of things to come. She embraces him, and he holds her heart in his hand. Should we embrace him, he offers his hand as a resting place for our hearts too.
But how are we to embrace him? If Advent is the season of fading and falling, the long night of bafflement and tears, how can it also be the season of affirmation for our Christian faith and joy? Faith and joy are not easy, cheap terms, to be batted about with little care. They are not merely feelings of pleasantness. They are not assertions that all is going well, especially when things are going terribly. They are not just causes for smiling, especially when that smile is a false grimace, plastered on because the holidays are upon us and the music on the radio insists that we are to be happy.
To have faith and joy is not to refuse anger, or sighing, or bafflement, or tears. “How long will you be angered despite your people’s prayers?”3 the Psalmist cries out. This is not a lack of faith and joy; it is an expression of them. He looks to the Lord. He asks a question, and believes that it will be answered. He is not fulfilled, but he looks to God as the one who will bring fulfillment, the one who is fulfillment. Christ’s hand hovers, preparing to grip our hearts. To be angry, to sigh, to be baffled, to shed tears; these are all acceptable. And as long as we, like the Psalmist, look to the hand of God with expectation that it will come to embrace us, we maintain our faith and joy.
And what if we fall? What if we fade? What if our eyelids become so heavy that they keep us from fixing our gaze on the hand that promises to hold our hearts? All will be well. Paul writes to the Corinthians that Christ will strengthen us to the end, so that we may be blameless on the day of his return.4 It is night. I am tired. I am sorry, unimpressive, and wholly inadequate. I fall. I fade. I give all my strength, but still, I make for a very poor watchman. But Christ has not promised us our own strength. Jesus offers his strength. “Be perfect,”5 and we are imperfect. “Sin no more,”6 and we sin more. “Love one another,”7 and we sow hatred. “Keep awake,”1 and we fall asleep.
And in response, God does not abandon us to the Pit. He takes our weakness, our frailty, and says, “Here will be the place of my strength, marked as all the stronger for arising from such weakness.” We are given the order, “Keep awake.” We should heed it, but many times, we will fail. Not for lack of trying, but for lack of strength. And so again, Christ says, “Keep awake.” It is not just an order. It is a promise. Christ proclaims that, though heaven and earth will pass away, two things will endure: us, and his words,1 because Christ offers eternity and life.
We are ordered to be perfect, and we fail. Jesus then brings perfection to us. We are ordered to sin no more, and we sin again. Jesus then brings innocence to us. We are ordered to love, and we hate. Jesus then brings love to us. We are ordered to keep awake, and we fall asleep. Jesus then brings us the waking hour.
Let us fix our gaze on the hand of God, in anticipation that he will hold our hearts in his grasp. Trusting in the strength of the Lord, let us keep awake.
- Mark 13:24-37 NRSV
- Isaiah 64:1-9
- Psalm 80 1-7, 16-18
- 1 Corinthians 1:3-9
- Matthew 5:48
- John 8:11
- John 13:34
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