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Keep Awake
by DWR

It was 3:30 in the morning, Sunday, August 11, 1991. “Seaman Recruit Rogers! Wake Up. It’s 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 Mark’s 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 for.


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.


Christ’s apocalyptic warning and Advent’s 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 reality—the 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 holy—the 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 beach—the horizon, getting brighter and brighter—I 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 awake—for 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 Christ’s 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 times—the 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 Christ’s return. The simple light of one candle is a reminder of what is already—God incarnate in human form, come to save the world. The simple light of one candle is an apocalyptic image of what is to be—the 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 come.

Keep awake! Let Advent be the sign of the times!