Editor's Note: This is the first in a weekly series of Advent Meditations on the theme of 'waiting' by blogger David Henson.
Keeping Awake to Wait:
First Sunday of Advent
Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!
Keep awake! And be watchful for the best deals on flat screen televisions, for they will come and go like a thief in the night. Keep awake! Two will be shopping, but only one will be taken into the paradise of door-busting discounts. Keep awake! And the peace of a peppermint mocha and the grace of our Starbucks will be with you always, for the coffee shop will remain open all night to fuel the delirium of fevered consumerism. Keep awake! For you know both the day and the hour when the master of American consumerism will return. Keep awake! For Black Friday now begins on Thursday.
Keep awake! This command that Jesus gives during the Olivet discourse, as recorded in Mark, is echoed throughout the gospels and early Christian texts. This refrain speaks to the sense of expectation and watchfulness as believers awaited the imminent second coming of Christ. Throughout these texts, writers are extolling Christians to keep awake and be alert for the return of the Lord, a theme addressed by many of the Gospel parables (Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Bridesmaids, and others). The fervent need to keep awake says a great deal about early Christians' understanding of not only their persecution but also of the eschaton. While much of the rhetoric of imminent return has been explained away by later Christians, the command to keep awake remains one of the few commands of our Lord that Americans still manage to keep. We keep awake as much as possible—and more. Statistics from the Centers of Disease Control show that about one-third of Americans are sleep-deprived and at least one-third report unintentionally falling asleep during the day. We are an exhausted people.
And yet, we keep awake. Indeed, we need to keep awake as we work longer hours for less while trying to balance our family and spiritual lives. Thankfully, there are whole cottage industries devoted to keep us awake, and the success of coffee shops, energy drinks, and even caffeinated water are all based on the need to keep overworked, sleep-deprived Americans awake, alert, producing, and consuming to keep our economy humming. It's no surprise that the popularity of tea and coffee spiked around the time of the Industrial Revolution when workers needed to be kept awake in order to keep up with tireless machines so they might work longer hours at menial, repetitive tasks. And now there are computers, robots, and outsourcing to keep pace with. Keep awake!
Nowhere, of course, is this American devotion to consumption and keeping awake more apparent than on Black Friday when Americans brave the cold and the dark, fighting crowds and crankiness to stand in line for cheap toys and overpriced electronics at hours when they would normally be snug in their beds with visions of sugarplums.
Keep awake! And completely miss the point. Americans keep awake only so that we can keep consuming, so that we can fill our lives with ever more stuff and ever more busyness. We stay awake on Black Friday to buy more or to stand in more and longer lines. On other days, we stay awake to surf the Internet mindlessly, check our work e-mail from home while we give our children baths, or work a few extra hours because the house feels too lonely. We keep awake, keep moving, keep consuming as much and as quickly as possible so we can get lost in the succor of noise and department store lights that masks our deep spiritual lack, our profound loneliness and our agitated listlessness.
But the command of Jesus isn't to keep awake and keep moving. Rather it is to keep awake. And to wait. And wait. And wait still.
This is the discipline of Advent, and, in some ways in our modern culture of frenetic activity, it is more difficult even than the penitence and denial of Lent.