For those of us who missed it, the beginning of Advent starts with a look at the coming completion of the cosmos in Justice i.e. with an apocalypse. Even more than that, the text drops us right into the middle of Jesus’ last good chat with the disciples before he is betrayed, hauled off to the cross, and then dragged to the tomb. He doesn’t have time to shilly shally around here, time is short and the people need to know what’s coming. He talks about a darkened sun and lightless moon, starfall and heavenshake.
None of these things are particularly subtle or easily ignorable. They are, frankly, terrifying. So does Jesus really think that what we need after this thunderous warning is some obscure story about keeping awake? Well, yes.
Humans have an absolutely amazing ability to sleep through nearly anything. Back in the US Civil War, infantry was moved by fife and drum while cavalry would respond to bugle calls. Units would intermingle at night on the march but while the cavalry would respond to a bugle wake up, the infantry would sleep through until the drums called them. People slept during the Blitz and fall asleep at the wheel of their cars. The human capacity to turn off the world and snooze is actually pretty phenomenal.
And that’s just physical sleep, our ability to mentally sleep through life is the stuff of legends. I’m not even talking about the bystander effect here either. In itself, that’s bad enough but we live in a world where we can nod off in the morning and awaken at bed time to a hardly remembered day filled with a vast array of busy nothings. That’s assuming that we can even remember what we did during the day. Half the time, our lives flow by us with a few notable remembrances amid the long swathes of pink (or grey or polka dot for that matter) fluffy clouds that fill our memories.
Some people keep journals to remember their days, others fill day planners and thoroughly review them in order to retain what was done when. Most folks though? Zzzzzzzz
From Satan’s perspective, this is all to the good because half (and fully) asleep minds will never notice when true beauty and hope are taken away and replaced with tin fiddle fakery. Distracted children discover that their candy has been stolen with no idea how that happened. Distracted adults? Oh boy, we can be much worse. We miss seeing our spouse’s emotional pain, our children’s confusion. We let sloganeers lead us into inadvisable business deals and unhelpful political decisions. Best of all (from Satan’s perspective at least) distracted people never do much self reflection, don’t open their lives to God, and thus don’t really grow up spiritually. The distraction and sleepiness lead quite quickly to septuagenarian spiritual toddlers who are no threat to anyone but themselves.
Given this, we’d bloody well want to be awake and growing, alert and becoming. To help this work, we have the season of Advent, a four week time of preparation and reflection. But we cannot expect to get away with doing hard spiritual work without someone from the distraction industry trying to interfere. And this season of Advent, so rich in opportunities to reflect on how our hearts and lives are ready to receive new life in Christ? We had better expect a few bright-shinies being thrown in our face.
And (as if by a miracle) in the middle of this reflective time… we have The Christmas Season(tm). Sure, it shares the same name as our religious festival but we’ve had so many expectations shoved at us over the years that the probability for bright-shiny distraction is quite high. After all, we don’t want to be mean now do we? It’s for the kiddies (and holds out the hope that this time we’ll finally have that Perfect Christmas(tm) we never got as kids).
All our heart strings are getting plucked, the music of a thousand dreams play in our ears, and over it all comes the sound so siren-like and gentle “go to sleep, delight in dreams. (pay no attention to your spiritual life or the lives of those around you).” Yes people, the secular rush to get stuff, fill our houses, and feed our faces can, if it lulls us into a sleepy sort of satiation, be the absolute enemy of our life of faith.
It doesn’t have to however, and parties and food and gifts can be fun (I rather like carrying those I love in my heart each day and looking for something that perfectly fits who they are). As long as we keep awake, we can have all the fun we can handle, eat all the food we can stuff in our face, and share the Dumbest Jokes(tm) with our besties. The thing is to stay awake.
And so Jesus starts us off on this journey to the little child born in the manger of our heart by telling us to (as one great author put it) “open your eyes, and then open them again.”