Wake O wake and sleep no longer, brothers and sisters! It’s a new year! Happy new year, by the way. As this Advent hymn states,
“Awake, God’s own Jerusalem! …
Zion hears the sound of singing;
Our hearts are thrilled with sudden longing;
She stirs, and wakes, and stands prepared.”
It’s a beautiful hymn—one of my favorites!
We hear in St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans today, “it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep.”
And in the gospel, Jesus says, “stay awake!”
With all the talk about waking up, it made me wonder, what’s the first thing I do when I wake up in the morning, even before I get out of bed? I had to think about it for a minute, because I’m barely conscious, and I’m pretty much running on auto-pilot until the second cup of coffee.
Well, for me, the first thing I do when I wake up, as I say a quick act of thanksgiving, is I stretch. It’s like a reflex. I don’t even think about it, I just have to stretch. Throw in a big long yawn for good measure.
Come to think of it, there’s been a lot of stretching happening lately. Most recently, in the waistband of my pants after feasting on the generous and plentiful Thanksgiving dinners that I attended. Thank you all again, for your hospitality. I am truly grateful, even as I am rapidly approaching the last notch on my belt. This is why they invented stretchy pants.
It’s no wonder why, all across our nation, many start their Thanksgiving Day with a Turkey Trot, or a 5K, or some kind of exercise, and that exercise, of course, starts with more stretching.
Stretching is good for us. It extends our muscles after a long period of tension, and enables them to respond more quickly. It increases endurance before exercise, and helps us realign those joints that tend to slide out of place. It’s part of waking up.
We need to stretch our bodies, but that’s not all. After all, we are made of a body and a soul. So that means we need not only stretch our bodies, but we also need to stretch our souls. And Advent is the perfect time to do just that. Think of it as yoga pants for the soul.
It’s tempting to think of this season as the Christmas season. Everywhere you go, ever since All Saints’ Day, they have been playing Christmas music in the stores and on the radio. Offices will be having “Christmas” parties. Even our seminary used to throw a “Christmas party” in mid-December, but then our director of liturgy made us start calling it an Advent party. Yes, that really happened.
And this is one thing that they actually do very well in Italy. Italian Advent is really a time of preparation. The businesses put out red carpets in the streets in front of the entrances. They start hanging lights between the buildings. They start building the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square. And lately, they are adopted the tradition of placing a Christmas tree there too. But it all comes about slowly, organically. And then, when Christmas Day arrives, it’s not over in one day. The celebration continues. The decorations stay up until February 2nd, the Presentation of the Lord.
Contrast that with our default American Advent, which is a time of hyper-consumerism leading up to one big day, then it’s all over. Toss out the tree, throw the lights back in the box. It’s all over so quickly.
The Church gives us these readings today to reflect on the coming of our Savior, who can easily get lost in all the busy-ness and commerce of American Advent. We are told to stay awake, to be vigilant and alert, to expect fearful signs in the heavens and on earth, not to be caught unawares. It’s striking to begin Advent in this way, because it’s a reminder that the same gentle, sweet, 8lb. 6oz. baby Jesus that comes to us at Christmas, is also the Lord who will come again to judge the living and the dead. It’s our call this Sunday, and throughout Advent, to be ready when he comes. We know not the day nor the hour, so we must be ready at all times. We need to stretch. We need our hearts to be enlarged in order to receive our King, whether it’s at this Christmas, on the last day when he comes again, or even when we encounter Jesus in the poor or those who are most difficult to love.
The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once wrote, “Only God can expand the finite to infinity without shattering it.” Think of that stretching of the heart that is required to be able to love the unlovable. To forgive those who have wounded us deeply. To be patient with those who get on our last nerve. Only God can expand a heart so.
Balthasar continues, “And greater still than the miracle that a heart can be extended to God’s proportions is the marvel that God was able to shrink to man’s proportions.” What a wonder we celebrate as we prepare for Christmas. When God himself becomes contained in the Virgin Mary, even though the infinite heavens cannot contain God.
It’s fitting that we contemplate this great mystery now, for it points to a most beautiful mystery that we each experience every time we come to Mass. That the God of heaven and earth could be contained in the womb of the Blessed Virgin, is the same God who comes to us in the Holy Eucharist, and comes into our very bodies. In the Eucharistic prayers at the altar, the heavens are rent open, and God comes down, condescending to meet us here. Coming in humble appearance, he is God-with-us, Emmanuel. And then, in the most profound of life’s mysteries, we receive him. And like Mary, we too possess the infinite God within our finite flesh.
“Wake, O wake, and sleep no longer.
For he who calls you is no stranger.
Awake, God’s own Jerusalem.
Hear, the midnight bells are chiming
The signal for his royal coming:
Let voice to voice announce his name!
We feel his footsteps near,
The Bridegroom at the door–
Alleluia! The lamps will shine
With light divine
As Christ the savior comes to reign.”