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1st Sunday of Advent

01 December 2023

Year B begins: Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-8,18-20; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-end


“BE ON the watch!” The command to “keep awake” is not one that I find naturally attractive. Staying awake when exhausted is tough, even with the help of a caffeine habit. Flashbacks to a sudden snap out of drowsiness while doing a long motorway drive prove it. The converse is also true, as we may reflect while staring into darkness, perhaps with added fuming if our bed-companion’s breathing taunts us with their restfulness.

Framing the divine command as a warning is an acknowledgement of how hard it can be to stay awake. When our children are small, we survive cruel-and-unusual-punishment levels of sleep deprivation. Even simple things become difficult for brains deprived of down-time.

We need to reimagine the command to “keep awake”. One image that came to my mind will not do at all. In the old Tom and Jerry cartoons, one of Tom’s strategies for keeping awake was to prop his eyelids open with matchsticks. It failed, of course. The second was to paint eyes over his closed eyelids to create a trompe l’oeil. That failed, too.

When it comes to God, fake wakefulness will not do. The finest Advent liturgies, however energetic the singing of “Lo! he comes with clouds descending”, cannot outweigh a heart tied solely to the present moment, and focused on the present self. What we need is a form of wakefulness which is not injurious to our well-being, and which does not crank up our stress levels — in other words, one that enhances our lives instead of diminishing them.

Not for the first time, I find myself asking how to read this Gospel in the light of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6.34); for I hear the words of Jesus calling us to “take no thought for the morrow”, and I need to merge this with being always “on the watch”. This is where we can turn to Isaiah and Paul for help.

Isaiah explores the relationship of God and his people over time. Instead of putting himself at the centre (“What about me, Lord?”), he lays out a pattern of human history. It is not cyclical, but it does witness to repeating actions and reactions. Blessing begets forgetfulness, and forgetfulness begets suffering, and suffering begets a turning to the Lord, and turning to the Lord begets blessing. The Old Testament/Hebrew Bible reflects on this pattern through many stories, over long periods of time.

At the moment when Isaiah declares his prophecy, the people are in an absence-phase. They have called to the Lord during a time when he has distanced himself from them, and from their concerns. Paul, on the other hand, addresses Corinthian Christians while their experience of blessing is new. Between these two, we can splice in the Gospel message, to express how salvation history, and Christian experience, teach us how to make preparations to receive the Lord in the right way.

It is stating the obvious, I know, but we cannot make the Lord’s Advent happen. Our prayers cannot “summon” the Lord to appear, like a genie. Advent repentance may be a necessary condition, but it is not a sufficient one. Although prayer, worship, and sacrament, as well as history, and the authority of the Church, all give the illusion of control to our spiritual lives, an illusion is all that it is.

Wakefulness is not spiritual anxiety (inability to sleep) or spiritual sleep-deprivation. God does not call us to perform negative things; he “does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone” (Lamentations 3.33). There is another kind of wakefulness, though. It may be a long time since we have experienced it. We may use another word to express it, by calling it “anticipation”.

Instead of the grim exhaustion of early parenthood, we can recall the thrilling excitement of being a small child on Christmas Eve. Advent should feel like that: not so much a struggle to stay awake as a sense of mounting excitement while the longed-for moment draws near.

The verse 1 Corinthians 1.8 looks forward to a culmination that is absolute and final, not the provisional pattern of call and withdrawal which we found in Isaiah. God has spoken his last Word, and the Word is Christ. Like children waiting for Christmas Day, we anticipate our Lord’s coming. No need for matchsticks, or fake-awake eyes. If we love the Master, it is exciting to await his return.

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