Princeton University Religious Life

Staying Awake

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 2, 2007
Isaiah 2: 1-5; Matthew 24: 36-44

So, here we are again in the season of Advent, the season of repentance and of hope unleashed and wild – on the loose! A time to let it all hang out, in terms of our audacity, our outrageous assertion that the time is coming soon when the violent and the defenseless, the fanged and the toothless of the world, can relax together and neither need worry. Here we are again at the time of year when, as people of faith, we take inventory of all the world’s injustices, indignities, sins and blatant wrongs and we still have the temerity to say that the day is coming very soon when hope and peace and righteousness will be born among us, when the ills we know will be transformed into goodness, into testimony to the God who made, loves, redeems, and sustains everything. Here we are, living between the promise and its fulfillment, between the already and the not yet. Here we are in Advent – waiting for what we believe will come, working to wait well, hoping though faith, despite the evidence of so much meanness around us. We hold fast to our belief that this long night around us – these darkest, shortest days of the year – are nothing but a passing manifestation, a time on the spiritual calendar that must be endured if the true brightness that is to come is to be understood at all. Do we appear crazy? Are we dupes? Are we silly people who can find no other, practical meaning in the dimness or agony around us that we cannot offer any other suggestion but the wild assertion that, unprovably, we do see the hope of the world lingering out there on the horizon line? No wonder many people wish to shop their way out of these dark days rather than ground their heart in wild hope for all that cannot yet be proven. If only we could buy our way out of anything that hurts us. We’d pawn all we have. And yet – what we want most is not purchasable with the currency in our pockets, but with the currency in our hearts and souls that we give away.

“Stay awake!”  Jesus says in our reading from Matthew’s gospel, that the church traditionally reads in Advent. Prepare yourselves, search yourselves, be as ready as you can be for the coming of God’s Anointed One - the time is drawing near. “I am awake!” we might think. My eyes opened this morning, I got up and I came here. I’m in the midst of getting a lot of things done. Others of us might say, “I’m physically awake, but I’ll admit I’m not aware. I’m sleepwalking.” Or “I’m making these weeks or months or years go by as effortlessly as possible so I can get to the place I really want to be. I’m on cruise control, automatic pilot.” And others of us might say, “I’d give anything for sleep.” Life is so intense that there is no rest for me. I am achingly aware of every last thing. Each day is both gift and challenge.

We have different ideas and experiences about wakefulness. Jesus is asking, in whatever becomes or befalls us, that we be vibrantly, vibratingly aware of the work of God in our lives and in our world, to redeem and to save. Perhaps you are like me, and certain experiences bring you to a new level of awareness, of “awakeness.” I happen to have one phobia, and it is a fear of sudden loud noises. I have never been to a fireworks display or heard the 1812 Overture. When I am at the theater and a gun is introduced on stage as a prop, I am beside myself. I can focus on nothing else. I become extremely aware of every small movement on the stage.  I hold my breath. I plug my ears. I hear my heart pound and see only the movement or waving or placement of that gun. After it goes off and/or is escorted from the stage, I lose that ability to have such heightened attention, such crystallized awareness, and I must say it comes as a relief.

It is true, though, that often it’s the very challenging parts of our lives that make us most aware – when we are afraid, or when we are grieving. A favorite movie of mine is Kenneth Branagh’s version of Henry V. I especially love the scene that is deep in the night before the Battle of Agincourt. Henry knows the battle will come at dawn. He walks among his troops, many sleeping, some talking around low fires. Faced with the imminence of a life or death situation his thoughts have burned off all their dross and distraction and clutter. He has never been more aware of the value of living, of the presence of God, of the majesty and inestimable worth of the humblest of his soldiers, of the depth of the love that ties them and him to their parents and spouses and friends and children, and the power and responsibility on each individual’s shoulders to shape the future for goodness. He knows that he might die in a few hours. In such extreme circumstances he becomes wide, wide awake.

Some of you who are veterans or refugees may have been in a similar situation. Others of us come to such alertness when we receive the news that we are ill. As a few of you know, I lived for a short time just this fall with the mistaken information that I had hepatitis C. (I turned out to have been given a different patient’s diagnosis and am grateful to be in robust good health.)    But I can tell you that I spent those days upset, but supremely aware of the many blessings in my life, the love that I receive and give, of the suffering in people around me, and around our world, and of the love, power, mercy and salvation of God in it all.   It’s a challenge, when we are not living with the emotional crisis of significant illness or the death of a loved one, to maintain that clarity of perspective on what really counts. The cruise control of not hurting anymore, or not being scared, feels like a blessed relief. Awareness – wide – awakeness – preferably without the suffering, is what Jesus calls us to achieve. I think that good poetry and prose, music and art can bring us to such awareness in the moments we encounter them, and so we return to certain pieces and works again and again.

I have been talking about how we stay awake and of the quality of awareness we are to have, but just as important is the why. For what shall we stay awake? For Christmas? For the warmth of the holiday and the cheer and the giving and the receiving and the time with loved ones? These are wonderful things, but we can be prepared for them without the state of wakefulness we are taught to strive for. Christmas the holiday is going to come anyway. We are staying awake so as not to miss the incarnation – God’s enfleshment, God’s quiet and humble coming into the world in the dead of our night to set us all free. We can miss this, if we aren’t paying attention. To be prepared for this we must be wide awake, living on the highest spiritual frequency that we have, our hearts readied to receive the Prince of Peace that we may enact the peace for which He lived, died, reigns, and will complete. Is there any greater project we could have?

Christmas is always going to come, every December 25th, whether we’re ready or not (spiritually or materially). But a Christmas world may not come. That part is up to us, and it’s why we need to stay awake. If we do stay awake, one day we, with God’s help, will end war. Over. No more warfare, no violence upon another of any magnitude for any reason. “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore,” writes the prophet Isaiah. Through our faith and through our hope we shall beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. We will turn our various weapons into the tools used to cultivate food for people in the imagery of Isaiah. We will turn our tanks into combines and our rocket launchers into threshing machines. The gun violence that plagues so many of our neighborhoods will be over – guns into spades that turn vacant lots into community gardens overflowing with vegetables and flowers to grace family tables. Already this world produces enough food to supply every human being with more calories than we need per day, yet 40,000 children continue to die each day of hunger-related causes. Not when we cease the violence that prevents the cultivation and dissemination of food. It’s for this that we must stay awake, stay aware through whatever life throws at us, no matter how distractingly lovely or painful. We never know when God’s new age will come, and we and our world must be ready. The Prince of Peace is coming. We live between the promise and its fulfillment, the already and the not yet. We know the ending. Christmas will come. The Prince of Peace will be born among us. That’s the promise and the already. But we do not live in a Christmas world. Swords and spears still trump plowshares and pruning hooks. That is the fulfillment and the not-yet. For it, we stay awake, and we work our darnedest. 

Staying awake all night doesn’t make dawn come any sooner – if anything, it make the time go by much more slowly and laboriously that if we doze off and let it all slip by while we are unconscious. And yet staying awake is exactly what we’re called to do at all times, and with special intentionality in Advent. We are summoned to be especially alert and deeply attentive – to our own spirit’s fluctuations, to the joy and misery of others, to God’s efforts, large and tiny, to break into our working and our warring and our busyness and our kindness and our cruelty. We are called to sit vigil with the world, to be present to the world, as present as a compassionate person who refuses to leave the side of someone in pain so they won’t have to suffer alone. Present with a world that groans in labor to bring forth a new way of being to become the world envisioned by Isaiah. Present to the glory and beauty in persons and cultures and nature – bearing grateful witness to so much transcendent loveliness around us, beauty so simple and exquisite that the only response can be perfect stillness. Advent is a call to Christians to practice an accompaniment with the world, a discipline of walking with the one and the many around us, bearing testimony through our compassionate attention to the presence of God in our midst and the imminent birth of God’s Prince of Peace. Jesus calls us to be wide awake, piercingly aware, vigilantly observant, observant as we keep vigil with the world. Let us prepare ourselves well in this season of Advent, so that when Christ comes we may say to Him indeed, “O God, my heart is ready.”


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