Advent 1: In Which We Stay Awake

By Jan Richardson

Image: The Luminous Night © Jan Richardson

Reading from the Gospels, Advent 1, Year B: Mark 13.24-37

“Shall I make a pot of coffee?” Gary asked me late last night—much too late last night—as I was burning the after-midnight oil, trying to finish everything on my list before leaving for the Thanksgiving holiday. He knows I don’t drink coffee (though I love the smell); it was his way of asking if I really planned on being up all night. At that point I was wrestling with technology that had chosen the worst moment to break down, and I could probably have stayed up till dawn trying to fix it, but finally I shut everything down for the night, left my studio, and went to bed. Where I then lay awake until the wee hours, as sometimes happens when I have worked too long and too late.

As I lay there, willing myself toward sleep, the Gospel reading for this Sunday floated through my insomniac brain (this blog post being another thing I didn’t manage to finish before I left). It was not lost on me, alert in the small hours, how Advent always begins with a word about wakefulness. “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come,” Jesus says in this passage about the end of days that, along with its parallels in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels, is known as the “Little Apocalypse.” “…And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

It’s a different kind of wakefulness, of course, that Jesus is talking about here as he tells his hearers how to recognize the signs of his returning. The wakefulness that Jesus describes is a state—a practice, a way of being—that bears little resemblance to the ways we usually try to keep ourselves (or unwittingly find ourselves) awake, methods that usually leave us jangly-nerved and less than fully functional.

Jesus urges us toward a kind of awareness in which, whatever else we are doing—even in resting and sleeping—some part of us remains open, stays alert, pays attention to what is unfolding and reflects on what it means. Jesus is talking here about cultivating the habit of keeping vigil: the art of waiting. He is describing a kind of awareness and attention in which we learn to not rely solely on what we can see (“the sun will be darkened,” Jesus says, “and the moon will not give its light.”) but turn to the wisdom of the other senses, to discern what they can tell us about what is unfolding in the world around us.

Contemplating this Gospel reading, I thought of this collage (above) that I created during Advent last year. It’s not even a full-blown collage, but one scrap among many that were on my drafting table in that season. I used it in a reflection here about finding myself in a stuck place in the studio. I realized that I had arrived at one of those threshold times that happens in the creative process, when something new is trying to work itself out but is taking its sweet time to make itself known. Like any birth, it tends to be messy. It is a kind of mini-apocalypse in which our familiar landmarks disappear, our sources of illumination go dim, our familiar ways of working no longer work.

It can be daunting to stay soul-awake when these mini-apocalypses come along, whether in the creative process or in life itself, which is its own creative art. It can grow wearying to persist in showing up to what is messy, to what is frustrating, to what lies in shadow, to what seems like it isn’t going anywhere. Yet as Mark’s Gospel reminds us here at the threshold of Advent, such times call us to trust that even in the dark, God is at work, is traveling toward us, has somehow already arrived.

As we enter into Advent, what draws you into the kind of awareness that Jesus describes? How do you enter into a waking that doesn’t depend on stimulants but that calls the deepest layers of our soul to keep a space ready, to pay attention, to turn all our senses toward perceiving where Christ may show up? How do you keep vigil and practice the art of waiting?

Blessing for Waking

This blessing could
pound on your door
in the middle of
the night.

This blessing could
bang on your window,
could tap dance
in your hall,
could set a dog loose
in your room.

It could hire a
brass band
to play outside
your house.

But what this blessing
really wants
is not merely
your waking
but your company.

This blessing
wants to sit
alongside you
and keep vigil
with you.

This blessing
wishes to wait
with you.

And so
though it is capable
of causing a cacophony
that could raise
the dead,

this blessing
will simply
lean toward you
and sing quietly
in your ear
a song to lull you
not into sleep
but into waking.

It will tell you stories
that hold you breathless
till the end.

It will ask you questions
you never considered
and have you tell it
what you saw
in your dreaming.

This blessing
will do all within
its power
to entice you
into awareness

because it wants
to be there,
to bear witness,
to see the look
in your eyes
on the day when
your vigil is complete
and all your waiting
has come to
its joyous end.

—Jan Richardson

P.S. Happy Thanksgiving to those celebrating the holiday today! For a brief morsel of a reflection from a previous year, see On the Occasion of Thanksgiving… And for an earlier reflection on this Sunday’s Gospel reading, visit Through the Door.

4 Responses to “Advent 1: In Which We Stay Awake”

  1. Laure Says:

    In late September of this year, the Lord began to hound me. At every turn … and I mean every … “wake up,” and “awakening” met me. Literally.

    I wish to thank you for what you’ve written here, Jan. The Lord has used your words to bring into focus some of what, I believe, He wants me to discern in this season of my discipleship.

    I confess that I had become frustrated by and easily distracted away from payinng attention to the multitude of singular messages to wake up because He was not giving me specifics which I wanted right then and there. sigh.

    Well, I am eager to spend some time in repentance and then wait without the petulance.

    Thank you, again.

  2. phyllis thomas Says:

    Catching up, Jan. Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m finding myself in a “stuck place”. Thanks to your post, I’m willing to “wait for the new that is trying to work itself out but is taking its sweet time to make itself known! You’re such an inspiration to me.

  3. Mari Berg Says:

    Your site has really touch me, I was looking for some inspiration for Advent. Thank-you
    I am the office manager and was trying to finish our Missal and this really help to give me strength.
    I especially liked the poem and the book I reviewed; by Gertrude Mueller Nelson “Dance with God” I hope to be back Thanks again, Mari (-: Peace

  4. Lynn Says:

    I commented in an earlier post about a friend pointing me towards this website and now I realize I already “know” you :). Another friend handed me Sacred Journeys a few years ago. So I feel like I’m in the company of an old friend this advent. 🙂

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