“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)
Happy New Year! In this first week of Advent, we turn over the page to a new church year.
One of the key verbs associated with Advent is “awake!” It’s what we heard from Jesus in yesterday’s Gospel reading. It’s found in hymn #110 in Common Praise, “‘Sleepers, wake!’ a voice astounds us.” This is a translated version of a hymn originally written in German in the late 16th century and known sometimes by its first German words, Wachet auf.
Why is Advent associated with waking up? As the father of a young child, I sometimes think this hymn is directed at Mary and Joseph dealing with their newborn son in Bethlehem. The parents of newborns spend a lot of time waking up to be astounded by voices. (Though as we know from another hymn, the baby Jesus made no noise: “the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” an invented Victorian ideal if there ever was one.)
More concretely, the verb awake reminds us that in Advent we mark two approaches: we look back to the coming of our Saviour in the Incarnation and we look forward to the coming again of that Saviour to fulfill God’s relationship with Creation. As our readings in these last weeks have repeatedly reminded us, if we are to be looking for the signs of God’s coming kingdom, we must be watchful, prepared, discerning, attentive—in other words awake to the world around us.
In recent years, and particularly in the United States, the word “woke” has come to be used to describe a certain state of political awareness and involvement. As I understand it, the word began to be used in reference to the Black Lives Matter movement but now more generally refers to an awareness of injustice and oppression in society. A contemporary translation of that 16th century German hymn could justifiably begin, “Stay woke.” This, as it happens, is the actual name of a recent song by Oshun, a female hip-hop duo who take their name from a deity of an African traditional religion.
There are many ways to take these thoughts but I am struck by two things. First, many people now find solace and strength in messages that are at the core of our Christian tradition—but with little awareness of their connection to Christianity. Christianity is seen as insufficiently “woke” even as staying awake is part of the core calling of Christians. Second, in the midst of the overwhelming stream of news and events in which we live, staying awake is no easy task. We need constant reminders of where to place our attention. For me, the best reminder of how to stay awake comes by seeking to focus—in prayer, in study, in conversation, in how I try to live my life—on the coming Christ, whose concern for the kingdom of God in which all are drawn into fullness of relationship shows him to be the most “woke” of all.
Ironically, this season of staying awake comes at a time when many of us are working hard to finish the semester. I hope in the midst of the busy-ness of our world and the busy-ness of our lives, you find time to sleep as well—so that together we can stay awake for the sake of the world.
This message was written by College Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.