“Keep awake!” As we approach, day by day, hour by hour, the fullness of the Reign of God, these words of Jesus echo through the centuries and come to each one of us. “Keep awake!” The words aren’t meant to frighten, Jesus is preparing his followers for challenging times to come. Little did his followers know at the time that the “challenging times” would last for more than 20 centuries. We are still in the challenging time, so it is good to remember the words, “Keep awake!”, words that have been uttered to every man or woman ever on night watch in the history of human civilization.
In Mark’s Gospel, this apocalyptic warning, “Keep Awake,” is given just prior to the passion of Christ. In the very next chapter, Jesus’ death will be planned by the chief priests and scribes, his body will be anointed for burial in the home of Simon the leper, and Jesus will preside as priest at the first Mass with the words, “This is my body…this is my blood.” There was, it turns out, a lot of reasons for the disciples to stay awake!
Christ’s apocalyptic warning today, followed by next Sunday’s celebration of Christ the King, and the following Sunday’s celebration of Advent are all about the same thing. We are supposed to be alert, anticipating the Reign of God which is just over the horizon. Biblical language says the “Son of Man will come on the clouds with power and glory”, and while this may or may not be literally true, the fact remains that our faith is about believing in things that cannot be seen, about believing in things we can only see with the eyes of our heart.
During the worst years of my life, in order to escape the relentless terror of living in my parents’ house, I would get up before dawn and ride my bike down to the shores of Lake Winnebago. If it was autumn, sometimes I would see spectacular Northern Lights that seemed to reassure me that I was not alone. In the summertime, when sunrise came earlier, I would huddle in the tall grass along the western shore and watch the sky turn from black to gray, from violet to light blue to brilliant gold, as the sun, as big as a beach ball, slipped out of the water, making everything around me and within me shimmer with peace and security. I remember those mornings on the lakeshore as if they were yesterday, and whenever I go home, I always return there.
For the majority of our time on earth, our time is a time of “already, but not yet.” We celebrate God’s abundant goodness and we know that the victory is already won. The historical Christ has come and gone, but as St. Paul says, it is your actions and my actions that further build up the body of Christ, so that ultimately all creation will be subsumed into the essence of Christ. So we proclaim with every fiber of our being that all that was begun in Christ the man, is not yet completed in history. You and I have so much more to accomplish, because it is not yet finished. “Already, but not yet.” The first signs that the light of God will soon overtake the darkness of the long night of human suffering and hopelessness have already appeared. Yet, even as the light dawns, we must be careful to keep awake, and not rush the sequence of time.
I’ve already said that mornings on the lakeshore were some of the most spiritual experiences of my life; in some profound way, they have helped make me into the man I am today. In the daily uncertainty and upheaval in my home life, time at the lake was all about peace and being centered in who I was, who I was called to become. At the lakeshore I came to know that God had his hand on me and that he wanted something really big from me. Looking back, my first priestly prayers were offered at the water’s edge, as I offered my puny insignificant little self to a God who, inexplicably, loved me just the way I was. In the disciplined regimen of getting up early, getting dressed, sneaking out of the house, quietly getting my bike out of the garage and peddling away like the wind, I learned how to defy gravity and fly to freedom. I never rushed that time at the lake because I think I somehow knew that if I did, I would be cheating myself out of something precious and life-changing, something meaningful and holy—all because of the discipline of keeping awake to greet the dawn.
The signs of our times are all around us now. Hurry! Do it now! Get your Christmas shopping done early! Spend more money! Get those decorations out! Make those plans, have those parties! We are determined to have our imagined ideal Christmas and holiday season and we want it perfect and absolutely on our own terms. In the madness, we so often miss the Christmas we really need, settling for a second rate celebration with family and friends who are, regrettably, less perfect than any of the people Martha Stewart would recommend to us.
“Keep awake,” Jesus says. It’s an apocalyptic warning, a loving caution that we not lose ourselves in distractions.
As I walked that beach—the horizon, getting brighter and brighter—I remember the moment when the top edge of that molten fire ball crossed the threshold of the watery horizon. It was a breathtaking moment in time that lasted only an instant, never to be repeated. I’ve seen it countless times, and no two times have been the same. Had I been dealt a different hand than I was, had my family life been different, had I been able to sleep peacefully in my bed through the night, the miraculous moment of sunrise would have eluded me forever. I have come to know and to trust that even in the pain of our personal histories, in the difficulties we all must face, there are always glimmers of light–moments of grace–to carry us and remind us of why we came here in the first place.
“Therefore keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”