Sunday, December 02, 2007
Advent I: Keep awake!
A Sermon for Advent I
“Keep Awake!” Matthew 24:36-44
December 2, 2007
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul
(The Rev’d) Elizabeth Kaeton, rector and pastor
“Keep awake!” What are we to make of this Sunday’s gospel? The dark images of chaos and calamity seem to be deliberately attempting to sour all of the relentlessly cheerful Christmas music which has begun to sneak its way into our lives again. Everything is green and red and bright. Matthew’s Apocalypse seems a strange way to begin the Season of Advent.
“Keep awake!” This is the clear message of this morning’s gospel. “Keep awake therefore, for you know not on what day your Lord is coming.” Seems a strange way, does it not, to begin the season which ends with the birth of Jesus? Ought not there be joy? Expectation? Excitement? Why this talk of death and chaos and destruction on this first day of Advent?
“Keep awake!” Today, on this very day of the first Sunday in Advent, is the third anniversary of my daughter’s death. For some reason, this year is much harder than last year. In some ways, it’s harder than the first year. In his deeply disturbing book, A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis writes of his inconsolable grief after the death of his wife, Joy. He writes, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep swallowing.”
I am startled by the clarity with which he captures my own experience of grief. The body’s response is much the same as fear, and yet fear is not what one’s brain would report as its emotional state. “Sad,” one might perhaps say. “Upset,” or “Troubled,” are other aptly descriptive words. And yet, it is perfectly logical to consider that the chaos and calamity which are the aftermath of the death of one’s firstborn daughter might result in fear.
“Keep awake!” These are the words Jesus said as he spoke of the end time. There is something singularly right about that, I think, especially in terms of grief. I vividly remember the moment I learned of my daughter’s death. John Bennett and I were sitting in Starbucks. My cell phone rang. It was Jaime’s husband. “She’s gone,” he said.
Everything seemed electric in that moment. Never had I felt more fully alive, except, perhaps, at the moment of her birth. Every nerve, every fiber of my body was fully awake. I went outside. The sun was shining. I remember that I was annoyed that the sun was shinning. It seemed wrong, as if the cosmos were mocking my pain. I was strangely, wildly, chaotically alive. I was listening to every word he said, not believing and yet knowing in my heart that he was telling me the truth.
I knew she was sick. She had been sick for a while. I knew we were going to lose her. We had talked about it, she and I, during long, painful, tear-filled conversations on the phone, or as we walked the streets of Boston, or while we hovered over a hot cup of tea at her favorite neighborhood restaurant. I thought we had more time.
Funny. My pregnancy with her was much the same. I wasn’t supposed to get pregnant right away. I thought I had more time. My labor with her was also the same way – sudden, unexpected, in the middle of the night. She came into the world two weeks early. I thought I had more time. She was only 33 years old when she died. I thought I had more time.
“Keep awake.” I find myself as startled by these words today as I do those of C.S. Lewis. I don’t suppose I’m alone in thinking that we have more time for lots of things than we actually do. Indeed, I suspect many of you in this blessed company of saints at The Episcopal Church of St. Paul are acutely aware of this fact. I suspect this is why you have come to embrace the benediction I give at the end of the service as one that is now a solid tradition in this place.
“Life is short,” it begins, “and we do not have much time to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us. So, be swift to love, and make haste to do kindness.” With those words, I bless you out of this place and back into your homes and neighborhoods, your places of work and study and play. I never thought of it as an Advent Blessing, but I suppose one could consider it so.
The call to keep awake, to be ready for dying not only keeps us ready for death, but it also keeps us more intentionally prepared for life. The truth is that, like it or not, aware of it or not, life places us smack dab in the midst of life and death. “Dying, yet behold, we live!” says the psalmist. This ancient truth is our daily reality.
Yesterday, as I left the Christmas Bazaar, there were more unfamiliar faces in the parish hall than those of people I knew. I thought to myself, “This is an idea whose time has come – again. It had died a natural death a few years ago, and now it has come back to life. “ But, you know, perhaps it had never died. Perhaps it just was dormant for awhile, like a seed planted in the earth, until its time came again. As our Eucharistic prayer assures us, “Life is changed, not ended.”
I left the Bazaar early to baptize my granddaughter, Abigayle Sophie. The name Abigayle is from the Gaelic meaning, “her father’s heart.” And, she is. Sophie is the name of her maternal great grandmother. It was a balm to my grieving mother’s heart to hold my granddaughter in the ancient ritual which assures that she is dying and being reborn in Christ. Dying, yet behold, she lives! Changed, not ended.
As I considered the baptismal water of new life, I thought of the placental waters in which we all live before we are born into this life. Research has shown that babies can hear voices and sounds outside the wound. They don’t understand, of course, but they catch glimpses and glimmers of what life might be like after they are born. I wondered, as I baptized Abigayle into the eternal life promised of Jesus, if life on this earth isn’t much like life in the womb we call ‘Mother Earth’. If we listen, we are able to imagine life beyond this earthly plane. We don’t fully understand, of course, but there are hints and suggestions; allusions and indications. If we are awake to it, we see that life is changed, not ended. Dying, yet behold, we live!
The gospel truth is that, like it or not, aware of it or not, God is smack dab in the midst of all of our living and all of our dying. This is the great gift of this time of preparation in the Season of Advent. Emanuel – in Hebrew, ‘God with us’ – is coming. Again. The one who died on the cross and was resurrected is come again to be in the midst of our humanity. Jesus comes in our midst to help us give birth to hope in our hearts in the midst of our brokenness and grief. Jesus comes to us again that we may go more deeply into death – be awake to every aspect of it – that we might be more ready for life, and know more deeply life’s precious, fragile nature.
“Keep awake!” is the admonishing from Jesus with which we begin the Season of Advent. Keep awake to death and to life. One is taken and one is left in the field. Be ready for the leaving and the staying. Keep watch for the thief in the night. Be prepared to see things that things that had been cast down are being raised up, and that which had grown old is being made new. Keep awake for hope in the midst of despair, for it is promised that joy will come in the morning.
We would do well this Advent Season to abide in the words of the great theologian of the Reformation, Martin Luther, “This life, therefore, is not righteousness, but growth in righteousness, not health, but healing, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not yet what we shall be but we are growing toward it, the process is not yet finished but it is going on, this is not the end but it is the road. All does not yet gleam in glory, but all is being purified.”
Jesus says to us on this first Sunday in Advent, “Keep awake!” And let the church say, “Amen.”