Keep Awake for What?
by Timothy J. Mooney
At youth camp, when I was in high school, at 6 o’clock in the morning, the camp director would wake us up by singing – off key, over the camp loudspeakers – “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory, Rise and shine and – give God the glory, glory, children of the Lord.” Mornings, at youth camp, were very difficult.
But Christmas morning, was a different story. We couldn’t wait to wake up! As a kid, my sister and I had a family ritual. We’d wake up as early as possible, run into mom and dad’s room, jump on their bed and try to wake them up. Mom would wake up quickly, but Dad would shoo us away, acting like he couldn’t be bothered. The more we’d say, “Wake up, Dad,” the more he would roll over and pretend to sleep a little longer. And just about the time we’d start to get frustrated, he’d tickle us and then we’d laugh real hard until we remembered that it was CHRISTMAS MORNING, and we’d start telling him to wake up, get up, let’s go. Then Dad would say, we have to have a good breakfast first and we’d whine a little. But we loved breakfast, so mom and dad would fix breakfast and we’d look at all the presents under the tree. Talk about anticipation; and it just kept building! Finally breakfast was over and Dad would sit back in his chair and say, “Mona, I think its time… for another cup of coffee.” We’d scream, and he’d laugh, and he’d say, “Who wants to open presents?” WE DO! Waking up on Christmas morning was great!
One Christmas Eve my sister and I came up with a plan. We wanted to catch Santa in the act! And we had a fireplace so we could catch him coming down the chimney. So we cut a long piece of twine, and tied the ends around our big toes with just enough slack so we could sleep, but if we pulled just right on our leg, the other person would feel a tug on their big toe and we could keep each other awake to catch Santa! And it worked … for about half an hour, and then we both fell fast asleep.
A few times Christmas morning exceeded our expectations. But most often our expectations didn’t match the reality. My parents, both teachers, weren’t rolling in cash, so we were never surprised beyond our wild dreams. But that was the beginning of a slow awakening: to the false promises that material things bring happiness, that being good gets you what you want. It was also an awakening to the deep satisfactions of giving a gift that was thoughtful and creative, simply being together, and the joy of life itself.
The call to stay awake for God’s arrival, God’s advent, as in our text from Mark, is attached to a big cataclysmic ending. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” In Jesus’ day, there was an expectation of a Jewish Apocalypse. God would miraculously intervene, the Romans would be defeated, and Jerusalem reestablished to its glory. They expected a big ending, where tears and sorrow will be no more, like a Christmas morning to end all Christmas mornings, where every gift you’ve ever wanted is yours to open and enjoy.
But have you noticed? We never get a Christmas like that.
Jesus says to keep awake. But keep awake for what? Something cataclysmic? Or are we to keep awake so we can see what deeply is, see what God is doing in us, see what God is doing in the world?
To keep awake points to spiritual growth, enlightenment, conversion. It comes in many forms.
Sometimes we wake up to a sense of being spiritually poor, as when Isaiah said, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” Or we wake up to a sense of being lost, as when Dante wrote, “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” These kinds of awakenings are difficult. But if we let them, they can become major turning points in our lives. We realize our life is going in the wrong direction, or we realize there is a deeper more meaningful way to see life, to live life.
Sometimes we wake up to what is beginning to emerge in us. God’s life, working below the surface, begins to show signs, and we see who we really are in God’s eyes. The Song of Solomon, describes this awakening with the words, “arise my love.” It’s an invitation for us to awaken to our own beloved-ness, and tend to it, and embrace it in us, and in others.
The cataclysmic description of God’s advent, points to the inner experience of God’s transforming work in us. We don’t change easily, and the older we are, the more change is likely to be experienced as an upheaval, as something cataclysmic.
Perhaps Jesus admonition to keep awake, more than anything, is an invitation to come awake to the present moment, our life today, now. In some ways it feels disappointing, because it’s not cataclysmic. But Jesus uses the cataclysmic language to get us to pay attention. We keep expecting something big, but when the big thing doesn’t happen, we begin to notice that the practice of staying awake, opens our eyes and our hearts to what is right in front of us: life, and what it might mean to be fully alive, fully present, right now. And perhaps that is, paradoxically, the cataclysmic change. We so often live in the past, replaying old hurts, accomplishments, stories that have defined if not trapped us in a small, familiar box. Or we live in the future either with worry and fear, or expectation and hope because the life we are experiencing now is difficult. But our life is neither of the past or the future. It is here, today, now, with what is in front of you and me, inside you and me. Jesus said the Kingdom of God is in our midst. To wake up to the Kingdom of God in this moment, is what makes us come alive, come awake. Howard Thurman wrote, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
Mark Nepo, a poet, a writer, learned this lesson from a fellow cancer patient named Helen. She told him, “Yours is to live it, not to reveal it.” He said of her words, “She was inviting me to stop recording the poetry of life and to enter the poetry of life.”
Irenaeus, the 2nd century theologian wrote: “The glory of God is the human fully alive.” Waking up is a metaphor for becoming fully alive to God, fully present in the moment.
Wisdom is a way of seeing and knowing the same old ten thousand things but in a new way … it’s not about knowing more, but knowing with more of you. I suggest that wise people are those who are free to be truly present to what is right in front of them. It has little to do with formal education. Presence is pretty much the same as wisdom!
Presence is the one thing necessary to attain wisdom, and in many ways, it is the hardest thing of all. Just try to keep your heart open and soft, your mind receptive without division or resistance, and your body aware of where it is and its deepest level of feeling. Presence is when all three centers are awake at the same time! Most religions decided it was easier to believe doctrines—and obey often arbitrary laws—than undertake the truly converting work of being present. Richard Rohr
You remember the age-old trick to help you remember something you don’t want to forget? Tie a string around your finger? I’m going to find some string and tie a knot in it and make a little loop, about the size of my big toe. I’m going to leave it someplace where I will see it every day, to remind myself to stay awake. I invite you to do the same. Christmas morning does not have to be just once a year. Christmas morning, the advent of Christ, is every day, maybe even every moment, if we will let it. Christmas is about incarnation, not just in Jesus, but God fully present in our lives. And the Spirit in us seeks to come to fullness of life, in this life, in our lives. God is truly present in our lives right now. There to be seen, welcomed, yielded to, if we will keep awake for it.
Let us wake up to being fully alive – this is God’s desire in us, for us. “Rise and shine and give God the glory, glory.” Awaken to God’s presence and grace in all of life. Let us give God, our family, our friends, our world, ourselves, fully awake, fully alive. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift. Amen.