Keep awake! ~Matthew 13:37

It must sound strange to listen to the days of suffering described in this week’s Gospel and other readings when the entire world is talking about presents, singing carols, and having holiday parties– especially if you didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition. What a bum way to start the season of joy!

But while we often think of these weeks after Thanksgiving as the season of Christmas, the Church’s traditional “12 Days of Christmas” were the days between Christmas day and Epiphany on January 6th. Right now we are in Advent, the season of waiting. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas and is a time where we wait with expectation and hope for the coming of Christ both in his birth at Christmas and in his coming again. It is the season where we prepare our hearts to be open to Jesus that he may strengthen us and find us pure and blameless.

For Christmas lovers who can barely wait for Halloween to bust out the Christmas Carols and lights, Advent might seem like torture. So much of the year is filled with the mundane and even painful things that we may yearn for this joyful season. Like Isaiah we might say, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence” (Isaiah 64:1). We want baby Jesus and we want him now. But as any expectant parent or doctor would caution, rushing a new baby to birth before it is ready is not a good idea.

Advent reminds us to sit with our anxieties and fears as well as our joys and hope. It invites us to experience the mixture of emotions involved in having one foot in the kingdom of heaven and one in the world. And that is why I love this season. It contrasts with the messages of #yolo, follow your passions, and pursue your own happiness. If we were to listen to these messages to perfection it would exclude all the other human emotions that help us to grow—sadness, fear, anger, and even impatience.  Advent calls us to stop and reflect. Stop rushing to happiness so we might appreciate the joy and the pain that are mixed along the way.

While sometimes it feels like the world around us has busted right through the season of waiting to get to the good stuff, we have many cultural gems that remind us that joy is something we struggle toward. It’s A Wonderful Life, Noël, The Preacher’s Wife, Shop Around the Corner, The Bishop’s Wife, A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, The Family Man, The Kid who Loved Christmas, and even the Grinch all remind us that life is an incredible struggle and that we’re all waiting with hopeful expectation for the good stuff.

The people in these holiday stories have truly been “fed with bread of tear” (Psalm 80:5) and some have felt “the derision of their neighbors” (Psalm 80:6). At the heart of these stories, are the challenges of life—poverty, neglect, suicide, mental illness, doubt, loss of faith, loneliness, and the temptations of money and power. They’re bittersweet. And that’s what Advent is—that bittersweetness—where the sadness of the season meets the joy and hope that reminds us that there is something more. There is hope for all of us, from the kid who has to deal with way too much to the hard-hearted and unloved miser.

Through these stories we are reminded that our salvation is not in ourselves alone—not through our hard work or success but through the love of another human being. Angels intervene only to point us back to the love that surrounds each and every moment of our lives, and to remind us that we too have a part to play in the salvation of others. Does that remind you a bit of another story?

So what then should we do in this season of Advent?

Keep awake! Keep awake to our neighbors who may be struggling. Keep awake to the joy that is here even amidst the pain. Keep awake to the parts of our life God is calling us to purify. Keep awake to relationships that need healing. Keep awake to where we’re being called to serve. Keep awake to the ways that we’re better as communities than as individuals. Keep awake to those we might usually ignore. And keep awake for the moments where God is inviting us to create Beloved Community with the people in our lives.