Keep Awake

The encounter of the church with the beginning of Advent is like an encounter with an old acqaintance: someone known to us but not fully known by us. Many people find Advent’s arrival as noticeable as Groundhog’s Day and to be quite honest, Advent marks an awkward season in the church’s calendar.

Advent fills the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. “Advent…” says the church, “is a season of preparation” and did we ever get that right! Shopping and wrapping, cooking and cleaning, writing cards to friends and parties and on and on. Advent calls us to prepare for something totally different. Listen…

“Here we are, at the happiest and most joy-filled time of the year and he goes and ruins it.” Alice protested. Worship services at the Third Suburban Presbyterian Church had just ended on the first Sunday in Advent. “I just don’t understand why we can’t have a joyful message and Christmas carols. Why does Pastor McAfee do it every year? Why won’t the worship committee sit him down and explain the ‘reason for the season’ to him?”

Alice wasn’t alone that Sunday. Others commented that church just didn’t seem to be ‘church’ that day. In fact, ‘church’ never lived up to the expectations of many at this time of the year. “It didn’t feel right…it didn’t look right either!” Matilda complained to her husband. She was concerned about those “ugly and dingy purple table coverings” that adorned the communion table and pulpit.

Third Suburban Presbyterian Church had recently undergone a remodeling project and the sanctuary had been tastefully decorated in colonial blues and soft yellow tones. Ordinarily the sanctuary was aesthetically pleasant – easy on the eye and something that visitors had commented about and members were pleased to hear. Now that Advent has arrived, the sanctuary was adorned with pruple fabric that obviously would not coordinate with the sanctuary. “It was absolutely hideous!” Matilda sighed.

Pastor McAfee had his own anxiety about church. He knew that with Advent’s arrival there would be complaints about the music, about the sermons, about the way the sanctuary would look. Last Monday he wandered into the sanctuary where it was quiet and peaceful – knowing that by the next week a tar and feather committee would be forming and he would be the guest of honor.

That Sunday afternoon the phone lines began to sizzle. Alice called George, who called Marvin, who called Matilda with the message, “It was the Christmas season and why weren’t folks singing Christmas carols at church?” To make matters worse, rumors were circulating that there had been an orgy of Christmas carols at the First Mega Church down the road. Pastor McAfee’s sermon had been about judgement and destruction. Nothing had been said about the sweet little baby Jesus. Someone needed to talk to their pastor. No more of this gloom and doom stuff between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Alice said that her family had talked about skipping church altogether during Christmas. There was so much to to – the kids had a number of school programs; the ladies auxiliary luncheon would take place; her husband had the office Christmas party; and there was the shopping for gifts and the planning for the family get together she hosted. Maybe this would be the year they would take a break from church and it’s Advent drudgery. George, Marvin and Matilda expressed surprise and secretly envious of the bold statement Alice was making. None of them would ever consider such a drastic but understandably sensible step in celebrating Christmas.

Pator McAfee only wished he could skip church this Advent. He followed the church’s lectionary throughout the year and to give up on it now seemed like selling out – the lectionary didn’t allow for much celebration during Advent. It didn’t matter that retailers had declared the day after Thanksgiving the official start of Christmas. While mall merchants stressed getting ready by shopping, the lectionary passages announced that a different kind of preparation was necessary. The hymnal provided no help either. Unfortunately there were no Pastor conferences in some sunny warm climate to attend and avoid the season altogether.

Elizabeth had also been in church that Sunday. She was in church most Sundays except this past year when her life had been very different. Her husband had been ill. He was someone who had been a force to reckon with – he was a good provider and cared for his community with a fierce passion. His illness had made him weak and helpless.

He had complained about a headache and just not feeling well the previous February. By March the doctor had given them the bad news – it was a tumor and things did not look good. The prognosis was at best six or nine months.

The following months were the toughest Elizabeth had endured. She watched her strong and robust husband become weak, even becoming unable to do the simplest of things. Easter came and went. Summer flew by and when he died in early November, Elizabeth was left to pick up the pieces.

This was her first Sunday in worship since the funeral. Her tears weren’t noticed by others. They came as she heard Pastor McAfee read, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Her family had always enjoyed Christmas. If only she’d known that last year would be the last ordinary Christmas.

When church had ended, Elizabeth returned home. it was quiet. He wasn’t going to be there saying, “So where do you want to have lunch?” or on some occasions “Come sit down, I’ve got lunch ready.” Instead the house was dark – there were no aromas spilling out of the kitchen – no one to come home to and no desire to go out.

As she prepared her lunch Elizabeth thought about church that day. She’d overheard the grumbling about no Christmas carols and she was grateful. She didn’t know if she could bear to hear, let alone sing, “Silent Night” right now. There was more silence in her life than she wanted. She wasn’t sure she’d be able to understand an angel’s pronouncement of great joy at a time of such great darkness in her life. She needed time to prepare…not just her house but her life.

The next day, Pastor McAfee phoned. He wanted to know if it would be okay to stop by…

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