“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. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory…. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come…. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”
Who can keep awake always? Certainly not the apostles with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, a scene soon to follow in this story. With danger that close and yet sleep so heavy upon even Jesus’s closest, bumbling friends, how are we expected to keep awake nearly two millennia later?
I lay sleepless in bed long into the night that the decision was announced not to indict a Missouri police officer for the homicide of an unarmed black teenager. From my apartment in Colorado I heard choppers overhead: probably police monitors as well as news teams looking for drama in the demonstrations and protests below. In my days as a reporter I would have been looking for the story too. I knew that many Street Psalms friends were congregating in the city’s central park, urging peace and civil conversation around deep communal wounds from systemic oppression and police brutality. But peace and civil conversation don’t make for compelling news reporting. “If it bleeds, it leads” the evening newscast. Unlikely partners choosing to share a meal instead of decking each other doesn’t pay the bills.
I felt guilty for not gathering that night with my Street Psalms friends. Earlier that day I had lunch with a friend who works at a legal clinic for victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. She had wanted to be more active in our last political campaign cycle, she said sadly, but she was too busy visiting her friend in hospice.
How much and how many can we care about before our hearts grow sleepy? There is so much to be aware of that things can dull to a low hum. It’s a struggle to stay present. Addictions large and small help take the edge off, keeping us drowsy. These days “Netflix binging” is even a thing. (Guilty.) By the time this reflection reaches your mailboxes, some people will have stood in line for hours to pay less for more on Black Friday.
In this lectionary passage, Mark presents Jesus speaking in the fullness of a Jewish apocalyptic prophet. The word “apocalypse” derives from the Greek “uncover.” Uncover what exactly? In Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie writes, “What, then, is veiled, the unveiling of which can have apocalyptic consequences? The answer is: violence…. Without benefit of religious and cultural privilege, violence simply does what unveiled violence always does: it incites more violence.”
Some scholars point out that much of what Jesus predicts has come to pass, save the glaring omission of the “Son of Man’s” return. The Jewish Temple fell in 70 A.D., before the last of Jesus’s generation had indeed passed away. We see that violence continuing today, and it will probably continue tomorrow as well.
Notice, however, that not once does Jesus pin these apocalyptic upheavals on a vengeful God. Instead, “suffering is to be caused by wars, frauds, charlatans, natural catastrophes, misunderstandings and persecutions” (Robert Hamerton-Kelly, The Gospel and the Sacred) – all stuff humanity is perfectly capable of without any divine help.
In the arc of the gospel narrative, we’re here with Jesus in the quiet before the storm that leads us to the violence of the cross. It’s also the first Sunday in Advent, beginning our season of waiting for (re)birth. Pastors everywhere will urge us to take time for the waiting and listening: presence along with presents. But even (or especially) pastors can get swept with us into the maelstrom of the holiday season.
What exactly are we to wait and listen for, anyway? Isn’t there someone, something to get busy caring for? A congregation, children, a fundraising campaign, a live-in mother with dementia, homeless teens on our streets, overtime to pay for Christmas presents, mandatory overtime so others receive their Christmas presents.
Some of us wait for the birth, again, of hope. Maybe we pray for the willingness to pray. Maybe we even wait for the ability to stay fully awake.
Contemplatives like Thomas Merton helped integrate mindfulness into Christian practice. Members of the Street Psalms community are introducing mindfulness techniques into member care programs for missionaries living in slums and other challenging settings throughout the world. Mindfulness can be no fun, especially for beginners like me. Staying either asleep or one frantic step ahead of that “still small voice” seems infinitely preferable. It’s easier to hit cruise control. Waking up can be like bringing your car to a screeching halt with all your baggage heaped in the back seat: all that baggage just ends up on top of you.
As people of God we can work to uncover violence – not with further violence, but with love and presence. But those efforts are only sustainable if we also offer love and presence to ourselves. We don’t know when we’ll be brought to screeching halts, or when those skies will darken and the stars will fall. Might we try contemplative prayer, mindfulness, and other practices to stay awake? Every day, hour, minute offers a new opportunity.
P.S. For Apple users, here’s a good contemplative prayer app.