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Awake (Advent 1)

“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.”

Advent begins in darkness. That’s why we light a candle. Advent begins with despair. That’s why we proclaim a message of hope. Advent is an invitation to get real, to acknowledge the darkness of our lives and of our world, and then to rediscover our vocation as Christians to be people who have hope, who see hope, and who give hope, even and especially in the midst of despair.

Advent is also a time of waiting. How many of you are good at waiting? I know that I’m not. As a society, I think that we’re much more used to rushing around and getting what we want than we are to waiting. Waiting can seem like such a waste of time. And yet, Simone Weil, the French writer, once wrote that “waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life”.

Our readings this morning speak of a time of waiting, a time of waiting for God to act, a time of waiting for the divine to break into our midst like a light that pierces the darkness. Sometimes, we think of waiting as passive. But the waiting that we engage in Advent is meant to be active, not passive. Like the servants that wait for the master’s return, each has their work to do. Advent waiting is a time to get ready, and a time to be awake. It is a time of longing and yearning that tests our patience. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” cries the prophet in our reading from Isaiah. ‘“How long” must we wait?’ echoes the psalmist.

Advent is not about waiting from a place of comfort. It’s one thing to wait for God’s coming when we’re comfortable. It’s quite another to have to wait for God to act from a place of darkness, a place of desperation. Many of us live lives of relative comfort, a comfort based in part on the consumption of a disproportionate and unsustainable amount of the earth’s resources. But in Advent our spiritual journey demands that we dig deeper. It forces us to acknowledge the darkness of our world and in our own lives, and to long for a response to the great sufferings of our day: war, oppression, poverty, climate change.

I’m reminded of a scene from one of the Superman movies. In it, Lois Lane has written a newspaper article, asking Superman to stay away, because the world has no need of a saviour. In response, Superman takes Lois high up into the sky where she with him can hear the voices of all those who cry out, the hungry and the sick and the lonely. “You say the world has no need of a saviour,” he tells her. “But I hear the whole world crying out for salvation.”

And so we wait, not from a place of comfort, but from a place of darkness. In our gospel reading this morning, Jesus, confronted with his own imminent death, uses the apocalyptic language found in the popular literature of the day to describe our plight. “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven.” But then, out of that place of darkness, he offers hope. Know that God is near, Jesus tells us, that the day is coming when all will be set right.

And so we wait in patient expectation.

There is a tension in our waiting. We are poised on a knife’s edge between hope and desperation, between patience and yearning, between expectation and not knowing what to expect. It was ever thus. This was the situation that the people of Israel found themselves in our first reading from Isaiah.

At one time, Israel had been a mighty kingdom under Kings David and Solomon. But in the 6th century BC, the southern kingdom of Judah had been defeated by the Babylonian empire, and the Babylonians had destroyed Jerusalem and taken the people into exile. It was a time of desolation, and a time of questioning. Why has this happened? Are we still God’s people? It was a time of waiting.

Finally, when the people were allowed to return to Jerusalem, they found their home in ruins and the Temple devastated. They were still oppressed. They still felt abandoned. And so the prophet and people turn to their God and cry out “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”. They called on God to stop hiding, to reveal himself and to save his people, just as he did in the days of Moses.

And you know what God’s response was? We didn’t hear it in today’s reading but it follows immediately on in the 65th chapter of the book of Isaiah. God responds, “Hey I was here with you all along. I was ready to be sought out, but no one asked, ready to be found, but no one looked. I was calling out “Here I am, Here I am” but nobody noticed.

You see, our time of waiting isn’t meant simply to frustrate us, nor to push us to the edge of hope. It’s meant to be a time of preparation, a time to get ready, a time to awaken to the spiritual dimension of our existence. A time when we learn how to see God, so that when he does come into our midst, we don’t miss it. Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.

God is coming into each of our lives, indeed he’s always coming into our lives, not in some distant future, but here and now among us. But his coming will be unexpected, like a thief in the night, like a master returning from a journey. We don’t know when, we don’t know how, we don’t know what it will look like. But when he does draw near, will you see it? Will you be awake?

Isaiah called for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Mark’s gospel tells us that when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens were torn open and the Spirit of God did come down like a dove upon him.

There was a great crowd gathered around at the time, yet most people didn’t see it. They missed what happened. But John saw it, John who had been waiting for the coming of the Lord, John who had spent his life preparing the way of the Lord, John who did the work given to him in his time of waiting and yearning. He was ready; he was awake. He saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God come down.

If you had been there, would you have seen it? Would you have been awake?

We have a tendency to link Advent and Christmas, to presume that humanity’s wait for God to come was satisfied with the birth of Christ. I’d be the first to agree that the birth of Jesus was a singularly important moment in history. Yet I also believe that the coming of God into our lives is something that is always happening, in our midst, all around us.

Some 17 years ago, I was a student chaplain in the Royal Ottawa Psychiatric Hospital, learning to provide spiritual care to patients with severe mental illness. It was an Advent time in my life. In the hospital I encountered despair and darkness that I had never seen before in the lives of so many people, and most of the time there really wasn’t much I could do to help them. In my own life, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and underwent surgery (successfully as it turned out). It was a time of waiting, a time of waiting for test results, a time of waiting for patients to stop their slide into despair and to show signs of a turnaround. It was a time of praying, of pleading with God to do something. But it was also a time of learning, of preparation, of doing the work that I’d been given to do.

On the floor where I was working, there was a woman who spent virtually the whole day moaning in a near catatonic state. I had yet to go into her room, afraid I guess, that I wouldn’t be able to do anything for her. One day, for whatever reason, I decided to go into her room and I sat beside her. I tried talking to her but that had no impact. I tried just sitting in silence. No apparent awareness that I was there. I was just about to give up and leave when the idea came to me, you know how that happens sometimes, that I could try humming. So I hummed a few bars of Amazing Grace. And to my amazement, the woman stopped moaning, straightened a bit in her chair and started singing Amazing Grace in a beautiful clear voice.

That same day, not long after, I was walking down the hall past the room of another woman, who screamed non-stop. Again, it was someone I’d never summoned up the courage to visit. As I walked past, the screaming was particularly loud and agitated. One of the nurses stormed out of the room, looked at my spiritual care intern badge, and said “Go in there and do something.” So, I walked through the doorway, glancing at the name on the way in, squatted down in front of the woman and said “Hi Angie.” And again, to my amazement, she stopped screaming, looked up at me and started talking to me calmly. We talked a bit, and then I left.

That evening as I was driving home, I sensed an overwhelming presence descend upon me, and a feeling of intense emotion that brought tears to my eyes. And I was instantly aware that I hadn’t brought that measure of peace and healing to those two women. The heavens had been torn open and God had come down. These had been signs of hope in the midst of despair. It was a key moment in my spiritual journey.

Each of us is on our own, unique spiritual journey. It may look different for each one of us, but God is coming into each of our lives, and into our midst as a community. We wait in patient expectation for the coming of our Lord, for the moment when God will say to us “Here I am”. When he comes, will we be asleep or will we be awake?


Homily: Yr B Advent 1, December 3 2023, Trinity

Readings: Is 64:1-9; Ps 80:1-7,16-18; 1 Cor 1:3-9; Mk 13:24-37

Image by Ana C, Creative Commons



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