When I read today’s scripture passage about staying awake, I can’t help but think back to last Advent, when I was 8 months pregnant. I don’t know if you know this—I didn’t until last year—but it’s nearly impossible to sleep well when you’re pregnant, or at least it was impossible for me. You can’t sleep on your belly anymore, everything aches, there’s this tiny person kicking you in the ribs all the time. During the entire third trimester, I’m not sure if I ever managed more than 4 hours of sleep at once.
Then, of course, there were all the other reasons to have trouble sleeping last year—a shocking presidential election, an increase in hate crimes around the country, concerns about Russia, an ever more divided nation.
My baby’s kicks might have been what woke me up, but the shock of fear and anxiety that I got from reading over my Facebook feed at 3:00 am is what kept me awake.
It hardly felt like a safe time to bring a child into the world.
But then, it probably didn’t feel like a particularly safe time to bring a child into the world for my own mother, during the AIDS epidemic and the war on drugs, when tensions with the USSR were still high.
Or for Mary, this pregnant teenager living in an occupied land, who traveled to Bethlehem late in her pregnancy, unsure where she would sleep that night. Mary, the young mother who had to escape to Egypt with her new family in order to save her infant from Herod. Mary, who from Egypt heard word of Herod’s massacre of thousands of infant boys, knowing that her son was the one he had been after.
I imagine her waking up in the dead of night like I used to, utterly sure that the world was going to end. That she had been asked by God to birth this child into a universe about to be torn by it’s seams. It probably felt like it would be night forever, like the sun would never rise again. To quote today’s scripture, it felt like heaven and earth were passing away.
Maybe you, like Mary, know what it feels to lose all hope. To suddenly find yourself alone and frightened and wondering what’s next. Maybe you, like her, know what it’s like to feel like the sky is falling and the heavens are shaking and you are sure that the world is going to end.
We are confronted with so many reasons to feel hopeless, so many reasons to believe that the earth is falling apart around us. When we experience the death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship. When we have to leave home, or suddenly realize that the places that once felt like home seem to have left us. When the life that we love suddenly, abruptly, comes to an end and we can’t how living will ever go on. When we fear the survival of our country, our home, our community, our earth.
The anxiety and fear that gripped me, and perhaps you, last year seems to have only gotten more pronounced this year as our elected officials seem determined to destroy every safety net that we have for the poor and sick in this country. As we watch hate groups march through the streets in Charlottesville and then San Francisco while our president refuses to denounce them. As natural disaster after natural disaster unfolds in Texas, and Mexico, and Florida, and Puerto Rico, and… and… and…
It might be easy for us to despair.
But, as today’s scripture reminds us, our times aren’t terribly unique, we’ve been here before.
Throughout history, our ancestors experienced this sort of fear and hopelessness. They saw the sky darken and the stars fall. They were sure that heaven and earth were shaking apart. That it was the end of the world. Throughout history: from the fall of the Roman Empire, to September 11th and beyond—people have been sure that the end of the world was right around the corner.
But it wasn’t. In fact, it was in those frightening moments that God decided to show up. It was amidst Mary’s anxiety and hopelessness that the Christ child was born. It was during occupation, poverty and war that God took human form and walked among us.
Every year, we begin Advent with readings like these. Not with stories about infants, but with stories of fire and destruction. Not with stories about pregnancy, but with stories of earthquakes and wars. Every year, the lectionary begins Advent with descriptions of the apocalypse. It starts with the end of the world.
Why? Why, on this season when we want to sing about peace on earth and cute little babies, are we confronted with these strange, disturbing images of death and destruction?
I think it’s to remind us that God has a way of turning endings into new beginnings, of turning despair into hope, of turning death into new life.
On Advent, we remember that God chose a particularly frightening moment in human history to be born among us, and that God keeps being born anew in all of the most hopeless, despairing parts of our world. This season reminds us that it is during our most frightened and helpless moments that we “will see the power and glory of God.”
But in order to see God’s glory, we need to know where to look. That’s why Jesus tells us again and again in today’s scripture to stay awake, keep alert, keep watch. If we don’t pay attention, we might miss the new life being born. We might be so afraid of the end of the world that we forget to notice God birthing a new thing. We might be so grief stricken about what we’ve lost that we fail to notice the new gifts that God is giving us.
It is difficult, when you’re afraid and panicked, to look for the little seeds of hope that are sprouting up from the rubble of a destroyed building. It is hard, when one thing is ending, to look toward the new thing that God is trying to give us. Doing so takes careful attention, similar to Buddhist mindfulness. It takes an ability to step back and allow the old thing to die so that new things will spring to life. It takes a careful and watchful eye that can discern where new life is being formed. It takes a person who is awake, focused and clear-headed to see how God is being born in the present moment, and to help midwife that new future into being.
“Keep alert,” says Jesus. “For you do not know when the time will come.”
For most people in Bethlehem, Christmas night was a night just like any other. The young couple riding in on a donkey and the infant sleeping in the manger would have been easy to miss if you weren’t paying attention. It was only the shepherds, who were awake late at night watching over their sheep, that heard the angels rejoicing. It was they, who had been alert and watching for wolves and robbers, who first received word of Christ’s birth.
This year, like last year, like many years before, there are many reasons to despair. But we worship a God who joins us in our despair, who chooses the moments when the sky seems darkest and the heavens seem to tremble, to enter into our human story and lead us into resurrection.
God is preparing to be born into this world anew, to transform our endings into new beginnings, and our sadness into joy. The question is: will you be awake to notice?