When COVID began and we closed our churches during Lent, it seemed as though Lent would go on for ever and we would be stuck in a perpetual kind of Holy Saturday, never quite arriving at Easter – and indeed I think there is truth to that even now. But now I wonder if in fact we are in an extended Advent - a time of darkness and uncertainty in our world, where we are acutely aware of the reality that we are not in control and that anything can and sometimes does happen. This is a difficult place to live and it is not surprising that recent months have seen such world-wide rises in anxiety and mental health concerns.
“in those days, after that suffering’ seems such a good description of the days of late January, after we had battled bushfires across three states – the days when the WHO first recognised there really was a problem. Since then, we have lived and continue to live with uncertainty and in the place where it is no longer possible to go back to how things were, but uncertain how things may turn out. We are trying to see in the dark.
Into this space where much seems difficult and undone, resonates this apocalyptic text from nearly 2,000 years ago. As Mark was writing his gospel around 70AD, the Jewish people and the early Christian sect within that people were experiencing their own undoing – the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, and the consequent expulsion of Christians from Jewish synagogues. It was a time of trouble, change, and uncertainty and the style of writing reflects that turmoil.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near at the very gates.” In other words, there is hope. All may seem undone, but it is undone, only in order to be transformed. In the place of most confusion and darkness, where there is suffering Christ is closest of all. If this is the case, then suffering and darkness is not so much of a problem – only falling asleep. We need to be awake, in order to understand what is going on and truly see what matters.
‘Keep alert, keep awake, keep awake’ the gospel writer says. But what does this mean? There are ways of staying awake that are not at all helpful. It is reported that the inventor of the lightbulb Thomas Edison slept only four hours a night and obliged his workers to suffer a similar deprivation. Likewise, market research for Facebook discovered that their main competitor was sleep!
Healthy sleep is life-giving and necessary for us all. Nor does an anxious state of hypervigilance make for good decision making or a deep relationship with God or anyone else. We are not to take the injunction to ‘keep awake’ literally at the physical level. However, there is an invitation here at the spiritual level to keep awake and to test our night vision.
We are being invited to ‘wake up’ to ourselves, to our world and its circumstances and to the life we are living. In many ways as Eastern thought has taught, ‘keeping awake’ invites us to let go of the things and ideas that we have taken for granted and which appear to be important but are in fact illusory. This has been for some at least the dark gift of COVID time, as our previous preconceptions and priorities have been stripped away and re-ordered. As the writer of the mystic work ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ expresses it:
“When I say "darkness", I mean a privation of knowing, just as whatever you do not know or have forgotten is dark to you, because you do not see it with your spiritual eyes. For this reason, that which is between you and your God is termed, not a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing.”
During Advent, during COVID time, we live with a heightened awareness of the cloud of unknowing – and it offers us the chance to be just a little more awake; to see just a little better in the dark. Richard Rohr expresses something of the same idea when he writes:
“Not knowing or uncertainty is a kind of darkness that many people find unbearable. Those who demand certitude out of life will insist on it even if it doesn’t fit the facts. ….The very meaning of faith stands in stark contrast to this mindset. We have to live in exquisite, terrible humility before reality. In this space, God gives us a spirit of questing, a desire for understanding. In some ways it is like learning to “see in the dark.” It is certainly a way to keep awake.
So, this Advent – this long COVID Advent that may stretch far beyond Christmas – may we seek to be awake and stretch our night vision, to understand ‘the one thing necessary’ in the midst of this darkness, the love and the nearness of the God who is constantly ‘at the very gates’. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Advent Sunday 2020, 29 November 2020