The Holy Gospel According to St. Mark, the 13th Chapter
“But in those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 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.”
These days… are dark. Today the sun sets at 4:22 p.m. Of course, life can be dark too. Darkness closes in on us all from time to time and for some of us more often than others. When that happens it’s paralyzing and nearly impossible to see into that darkness beyond the very next thing our calendar demands. The larger world too, seems dark at times. War, racism, hurricanes, climate change, terrorism, hatred… all fed to us in a continual, disorienting, stream of who-knows-what-headline is next… like drinking darkness from a firehose! When Jesus spoke the words of this Gospel lesson, he spoke them to a people who lived in the deep darkness of an oppressive, violent, government. They lived under an economic system that took from the poor and sent those resources up the chain so that the ones with the most, would have even more and the poor would be too busy just surviving to challenge it. There seemed to be no end in sight.
For those dark times, Jesus says “Keep awake.” While that might sound like Jesus is telling us to just “tough it out” I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant. I think Jesus was giving the people who lived in those real, deep, dark, desperate days back then… AND us who live in our own real, deep, dark, desperate days today, a genuinely helpful strategy for living hopefully, even in the midst of the darkness.
The first part of the strategy Jesus was passing on here is what author Amy Cuddy calls “faking it until you become it.” In her research she’s found that when we practice physical postures associated with positive things, our brains chemically become more positive… more confident… more awake! You know how when you win something, you feel incredible and your arms automatically shoot up in that victorious V shape? It turns out it works the other way too! Even before a race begins, if you put our arms up in that Victorious V shape, our brains release the same chemicals as if we’ve already won! We get those same feelings of accomplishment up front and with that confidence we can push back on the dark and run the race, believing from the start that we can win!
When Jesus says, “Stay Awake” he’s telling us, “fake living in the light until you live in the light!” It’s easy to do God’s work in the world when we feel God is with us. Feeding the hungry, casting out evil, challenging hurtful systems, bringing calm to chaos, and loving one another all flows naturally from that secure feeling we have when God is with us. When Jesus says “Stay Awake” he’s telling us it works the other way too! When you do the Master’s work… even in the darkest of times… times when it feels like God is very distant… The work itself… the acts of generosity, compassion, healing and justice… opens us up to the truth, that God is still with us even in the darkness, and with that confidence, we can push back on even in the deepest darkness.
The other thing I think Jesus’ command to “Keep Awake” is meant to do, is to train our minds and spirits to see the smallest bits of light around us, even in the darkness. Jesus knew we would be tempted in times of darkness to simply put our heads down, grit our teeth, clench our muscles, and wait for the world to lighten up again. But Jesus also knew that hunched over, tensed up, with our eyes closed, we’d likely miss even the light of stars falling from the sky!
Jesus asks us to begin now to train ourselves to notice the big things, like moons going dark and the Son of Man coming in the clouds, by practicing NOTICING the little things. Start by noticing things we often miss… like branches getting tender and buds beginning to swell. One friend told me recently that when he walked his dog that day he NOTICED the birds weren’t singing… and then, in that moment of NOTICING, he became open to the truth that it wasn’t that the birds weren’t singing, but that he had been too distracted to hear them. Jesus knew then, what brain science has shown now. When we NOTICE things, our brains become measurable more flexible, more creative, more collaborative… more AWAKE! It actually doesn’t matter what we NOTICE in our brain training, so much as we do the NOTICING! It’s the process of NOTICING that builds our psychological flexibility, that then allows us to see new possibilities and see the light of new solutions and pathways down the road.
Advent is a season set in darkness and it’s a season calling us to “Stay Awake,” even in that darkness. It’s the season where Wisemen begin to NOTICE stars moving across the sky, women NOTICE babies leaping in their wombs and it ends with shepherds NOTICING angels appearing in the sky. What would happen, if every morning this Advent, as you lie there in the darkness, you asked God to help you NOTICE three new things that day… any three things. NOTICE the birds singing. NOTICE the smells when you bake for the bake sale this week. NOTICE the name of the person who bags your groceries. NOTICE the sunrise and all the different colors.
The promise of Advent is that as we do the work of the Master, even while the Master feels distant… as we practice NOTICING the little things, in preparation to NOTICE the big things… the promise of Advent is that at the end of the season we’ll be able to see more fully the possibilities lying right there in front of us in a manger and we’ll be able to see more clearly the light that shines in the darkness is truly a light no darkness can overcome. Amen.