It was 3:30 in the morning, Sunday, August 11, 1991. Seaman Recruit Rogers!
Wake Up. Its time for you to relieve the watch. 10 minutes and a quick shower later,
I was making the lonely, pre-dawn walk to the beachfront guard shack along the perimeter
of the Coast Guard boot camp compound. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, I relieved
the watch and took my post. For the next four hours, it was me, the rising tide, the
morning air, and God. It also became one of the most spiritual moments in my life.
Keep awake! On this first Sunday of Advent, the dawn of a new year in
the Christian liturgical calendar, the words of Jesus echo through the ages. Keep
awake! The words are pastoral in nature. Jesus was preparing his followers for hard
times to come. He was reaching out to a son-to-be church with empathetic words of
prophetic warning, pastoral concern, and apocalyptic urgency. Keep Awake.
That Sunday morning on the beach at Cape May, New Jersey, nothing earth shattering
happened. The watch log reflects that I stood my watch in the tiny guard shack. Every 15
minutes I left the guard shack to walk the waterline for the required regular patrol. Upon
my return, the watch log reflects, RETURNED FROM WATERLINE PATROL. NOTHING OUT OF
THE ORDINARY OBSERVED. ALL IS SECURE.
In Marks Gospel, this apocalyptic warning, Keep Awake, is given
prior to the passion of Christ. In the very next chapter, Jesus death will be
planned by the chief priests and scribes, his body will be anointed for burial in the home
of Simon the leper, and Jesus will inaugurate the Last Supper with the words, This
is my body
this is my blood. There was a lot for the disciples to keep awake
That morning I spent on the beach during my boot camp training was definitely more
exercise than necessary function. Rather than providing security, the purpose of this
particular watch was part of the training and discipline of boot camp. It was an exercise
designed to train us would-be sailors to be diligent, forthright, and alert for the days
when we would be standing a serious watch, when lives and safety would legitimately be
under our watchful eyes. I was to keep awake, anticipating a reality still
waiting on the horizon.
Christs apocalyptic warning and Advents liturgical celebration are
about the same thing. We are to keep awake, anticipating a reality still waiting on the
horizon. The reality is the return of Jesus Christ, the Son of Man coming in the
clouds with great power and glory.
I can remember that morning on the beach as if it were yesterday. The black,
moonless, sky gradually gave way to the first light of dawn. In time, the flashlight was
unnecessary for my regular patrols down the length of my assigned area. The light of the
dawn was sufficient to see. Yet the light of dawn prefigured a greater light, a more
brilliant realitythe radiance of the sunrise about to take place. The morning was
already here, but not yet complete.
Advent is a time of already, but not yet. It is a time when we
proclaim that Christ is already, but not yet complete. We know of his birth and look
forward to celebrating that birth on the 25th of next month. We know of his life and
celebrate the Gospel tradition of all Jesus represents. Yet we also proclaim (and more
importantly so) all that was begun in Christ, is not yet complete. Christ is already, but
is not yet complete. Already, but not yet.
With the lighting of one candle, we see the first light of dawn, the twilight of
Christmas, the first signs that the light of God will soon overtake the darkness of the
long night of sin and despair. Yet, as the light dawns, we must be careful to keep awake,
and not rush the sequence of time. To keep awake, and avoid the distractions of the age.
I said that that morning on the beach was one of the most spiritual of my life. It
really was. In the harried and rushed environment of boot camp, it was four hours of peace
and tranquility. In the disciplined regimen of pushups, drills, and inspections it was a
time of freedom. In the close-quarters of the 70 men I lived with, it was a time of
solitude. Since my watch happened to fall on a Sunday morning, I stood my watch that day
anticipating church services later that morning. Yet, had I somehow rushed that time alone
on the beach, had I been able to skip it and go directly to church that Sunday morning, I
would have cheated myself of something precious, something meaningful, something holythe
discipline of simply keeping awake.
The sign of the times today is an interstate speed limit sign. Rush. Get your
Christmas shopping done early. Quick, spend more money so that you can buy the perfect
Christmas. Hurry, get those decorations out, make those plans, and buy that holiday food.
We want our Christmas and we want it now. We want it perfect, sentimental, and absolutely
on our terms). Add to the holiday confusion the media blitz and market-driven push to be
ready for Y2K or the coming of the new millennium and the signs of the times are more than
we can handle. Jesus warns us to keep awake.
Keep awake. It is a loving caution and an apocalyptic warning that we
never get distracted.
As I walked that beachthe horizon, getting brighter and brighterI
remember the moment when the top edge of that fiery ball crossed the threshold of the
horizon. It was a priceless moment in time that lasted only an instant, and can never be
repeated. Had I been distracted by anything else, or even just looking the other way at
that moment, it would have been a moment lost for ever, and never fully experienced.
Therefore keep awakefor you do not know when the master of the house
will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find
you asleep when he comes suddenly.
Advent is our chance to separate ourselves from the distractions of the secular,
consumer-oriented and market-driven Christmas. Advent calls us to look in the glowing
horizon of Christs promised return. Keep awake, Jesus said. The caution
is to never allow the tempting signs of the times, the ebbs and flows of life, and the
petty distractions of social expectations or emotionally driven sentimentality to cloud
our experience of the Divine this season.
Keep Awake and take a lesson from the fig tree. As sure as the seasons come and go
As sure as the sun rose on that Sunday morning 8 years ago, Christ will return.
That Gospel promise we can proclaim with the utmost certainty and confidence. Therefore,
let us keep awake! A avoid the temptation to rush the season and get distracted by the
emotional demands of the next four weeks.
Let us keep awake. The signs of the timesthe events of our lives serve only
to distract each of us from the holiness, the sacredness, and simplicity of a baby, born
in a barn.
Let us keep awake. The advent wreath calls us to focus on the dawn of Christs
return. The simple light of one candle is a reminder of what is alreadyGod incarnate
in human form, come to save the world. The simple light of one candle is an apocalyptic
image of what is to bethe Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and
glory. This simple light is now one candle and it proclaims the Brilliance that is yet to
Keep awake! Let Advent be the sign of the times!