In my house, the first Sunday of Advent signals the beginning of certain holiday rituals. I imagine it is the same in all our homes. The big box of decorations come up from the basement to be dusted off. The outdoor Christmas lights are unwrapped, which usually results in a trip to Canadian Tire for new bulbs. The recipe for special Christmas bread comes out. Christmas lists begin to come together. Holiday parties are slotted. Holiday visits are planned…
Or at least, until this year. This year feels different. It is different. What we love about ritual and traditions is that they are familiar and cozy, and yet many of them won’t be possible this year. There won’t be big parties. No concerts. No visits from faraway family. We may not even be able to see our loved ones in long term care homes. And on the most magical night of our faith lives, we won’t be able to worship in person together.
Now, faced with this not-so-great situation, we have a few choices. I suppose one option would be that we carry on as if things were just as they have always been. I see people doing that – rushing out for presents, making lists, getting into busy mode, as if Christmas 2020 were going to be just like Christmas 2019. But what happens, then, on Christmas day, when all is quiet and stays quiet?
A second option would be just to close our eyes, hold our breath, and wait for it to be all over. The vaccine is coming, we can say, so you know that Christmas 2021 will be fabulous. But how long can a person hold their breath, or walk around with their eyes closed before they hurt themselves? And what happens when they have to see reality?
The third option is the one described in our gospel this morning. This is not the first time in so many weeks that we have had a gospel urging us to keep awake! Stay awake, we were told, in the parable of the lanterns left to run out of oil so that we could not see. Stay awake, we are told now, because a bright new day is coming.
What does this mean – stay awake? In the gospel, we are told to be ready for Jesus to come, for the advent of Jesus. To stay awake, like servants waiting for the master because it could happen at any time – in the evening, at midnight, at the crack of dawn. Keep Awake.
Indeed, being attentive is one of the chief callings of our faith. We are to be on the lookout for injustice, for those in need, for ways to help. A few weeks ago, our story about the lanterns and those who managed to spare their oil to maintain their light was about being awake for the long haul, for whatever might happen and need doing. But this week, we are focused more on the event we are staying awake for: the coming of Christ.
Now, what would that coming look like? Do we imagine Jesus showing up one day in the flesh, and saying, “Here I am”? We probably don’t imagine Jesus arriving as a baby born in a homeless shelter, but then neither did Mary or Joseph. Or could the coming of Jesus mean something else, more about the world restored as our first lesson describes? Will we know that Jesus is here when our work is done?
If we don’t know the answer – and how can we? – then we must take meaning from our instructions. Keep awake. And yes, that means a call to service, but it also reflects how we live and breathe as individuals. And perhaps it is especially instructive this Advent.
But if we take the first option, if we carry on as usual, we will not have kept awake to the fact that life is very different. That we must adapt and do things differently. That we have to find joy in different places.
And if we take the second option, just to close our eyes and grin and bear it until it is over, then we have not kept awake to the fact that even when life is different there is the possibility of wonderful things happening. That by keeping open, we see new paths to bring Christmas to life. New ways to bring joy.
And so, the third option is to be open-eyed, to find a place between the two. We can preserve the heart of our traditions, even if we cannot do them exactly the same as usual. I know many bakers who will not have a pile of family this December. But why do they bake – for the joy that it brings the person who receives it? That is still possible. We can decorate our houses with abandon, not for visiting family but to cheer up our neighbors. We can sing carols, not to hear our voice lift with others, but to listen to the words with new ears. We can distill Advent and Christmas down to the substance that it was always meant to be – a time of contemplation, reflection, and peace. We can be innovative. The pandemic has taken none of this possibility away from us.
It will be our challenge these next four weeks, not to get pulled back into various forms of blindness – wishing life was different, pretending not to see that it isn’t. Sometimes, that is necessary armour. But our call to stay awake places upon us a new challenge this Advent and Christmas – to do the things that still matter most and make them count in new ways. Love, share, give, heal. Do it all. In every way you can. Stay awake. In the practice of loving, sharing, giving and healing, we find we are not waiting for Jesus at some random hour. Because Jesus is already here.