Sometimes, in the morning, when I’m waking up, I find myself in a dream world where everything is as it should be, a world without pain and sorrow, a world full of joy and peace: swords turned into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks. And even though I know I’m waking up, I want to stay there, in that dream world, so I roll over, eyes closed, and try to fall back to sleep, lingering in that world for another few minutes. Because the world we have is not the world we want.
Karl Marx once said that Christianity is a kind of dreaming, spirituality as an opiate that numbs us to the world, the world beyond the confines of our households and churches. Since we don’t want this world and we realize that we can’t change it, we withdraw into ourselves, into our private piety, our own devotional world where we obsess over private sins, our own and others, petty lusts, while shrugging at the systems of sin that enslave our world, that enslave us—systems of power ranging from sexism to racism, from economic injustice to environmental degradation, all factors that fuel the violence that organizes our world.
We shrug because those systems of sin seem impossibly big, beyond our reach, beyond our sphere of influence, out of our control. So we turn inward, to our selves, to our family, to our home, to our work, to an area of life we think we can manage, to a domain we think we can control. We can’t do anything about immigration policy, which has everything to do with loving our neighbors, but we can open our homes to friends for a meal, hospitality on a scale we can control, inconvenience we can manage, a self-giving life without too much risk.
But our Scriptures today shake us awake, jolting us out of our dreams, shocking us into a world that needs our attention. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep,” the apostle Paul says in Romans (Rom 13:11). “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming,” Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel (Matt 24:42).[i]
Advent is a time for waking up, of paying attention, of opening our eyes to see the world around us, opening our ears to hear God’s voice calling out in the night. Our ears tuned to the sound of the newborn cry from God, piercing the darkness. Our eyes catching a glimpse of angels like stars in the night, pointing to our salvation.
During Advent, we wake ourselves from the dreamlike state of our lives, our sleepwalking habits and routines, and we become like the Magi, staring into the dark like they always have done, but this time noticing a strange sighting, a sign of God’s arrival. We become like the shepherds, keeping watch over their flock, listening to the stillness of night like they always do, the silence of the dark fields, but this time hearing heavenly choirs, announcing the coming of the Lord, the prince of peace.
Faith is a way of staying awake, of refusing to settle into the patterns of this world.
The theologian Nicholas Lash talks about faith as “attentive reverence for God [in] the features of [this] world.” Faith, Lash says, “is a kind of seeing in the dark, a listening to stillness.”[ii] I like the way he talks about faith as both seeing and listening, the eyes and ears as two different metaphors for faith.
Faith is like seeing in the dark, because the darkness is a kind of bewilderment. Our eyes can’t grasp what’s around us. Our sight goes in and out of focus, trying to make out what’s around us, the darkness drawing us further and further into the depth of the world.
And that’s what God is like, this alluring depth to the world, this beckoning presence that we never quite grasp, yet always welcomes our search, always drawing us closer. Dionysius, in the sixth century, calls this God’s “ray of darkness,” a light that blinds us, that disorients us, that draws us into uncertainty, because God is unknowable presence, always around us yet unseen.
Faith is staying awake at night, trusting God to find us, to lead us—not according to the path we have already outlined for our lives, but a wandering journey further and further into God, watching for signs in the dark, stumbling into God’s grace.
And, like I said earlier, faith is like listening to the stillness of night. With our sense of sight, we shift our gaze, moving our head this and that, choosing what we want to focus our eyes on. There’s a sense of initiative, on our part. Of seeking. Of searching.
Not so with hearing. With our ears, we wait from something or someone to make a sound. They reveal themselves, without us turning to them. The only thing we can do, is to quiet ourselves, to let the stillness prepare us for hearing a sound.
And that’s what faith is like, this listening in the stillness, this listening for a God who can’t be forced to make a sound, listening for God at work in a world that we can’t control. Faith is “sustained attention to the silence of God.”[iii]
Faith is like seeing in the dark and listening to the silence because that’s how the world feels, when it comes to God, when we try to see and hear God’s presence. Most of the time, we see night and hear stillness.[iv]
But God is there, always unexpected, a surprising presence—an unseen figure beside us in the dark, an unheard whisper in the night.
Advent is a season for us to stay awake in the night, waiting for the visitation of God. “Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep” (Rom 13:11). “Keep awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming” (Matt 24:42).
Advent is an awakening for us, a time for us to be reminded that something is happening in this world beyond our imagination, beyond what we can see and hear—something happening in the world, a work of God that calls out to us, so we wait and listen, we wait and watch, preparing our lives to be startled into God’s presence, like a thief in the night.
We don’t have the world we want. There’s so much wrong here, inside and outside of us. And the temptation is to roll over and let ourselves keep on sleeping, staying in the comfort of our beds, in our homes, with the lives we’ve made for ourselves, all the comforts we’ve worked so hard to surround ourselves with.
To be awake means we stare at the night and we listen to the silence for a little while longer, letting this world bewilder us—disoriented in the dark yet trusting the one who has promised to be there with us, the one who has promised to be here with us: the advent of God, shocking us into new life.
[i] For this theme of awakening, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/2:554-561. “We cannot, therefore, define Christians simply as those who are awake while the rest sleep, but more cautiously as those who waken up in the sense that they are awakened a first time and then again to their shame and good fortune. They are, in fact, those who constantly stand in need of reawakening and who depend upon the fact that they are continually reawakened. They are thus those who, it is to be hoped, continually waken up” (555).
[ii] Nicholas Lash, Seeing in the Dark (2005), 31 and 48.
[iii] Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 6.
[iv] For the difference of seeing and hearing in terms of faith, see Lash, Seeing in the Dark, 48-49.