Keep Awake!, Advent 1 – December 3, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

“Keep awake!”

Have you ever stayed up all night?

Christ calls to his disciples and the whole Church to “keep awake,” to keep alert. This idea of keeping awake is at the heart of Advent, a time of waiting and watching, but it also calls to mind a very human thing: to stay awake when you would normally be sleeping.

New parents certainly know what it means to keep awake — to be up in the middle of the night caring for a child. Youth leaders everywhere have endured the crucible of the “lock-in” — when the church is overrun by teenagers for an entire night, who stay up playing games and making mischief while everyone else sleeps.

There are also many professions that require keeping awake through the night: paramedics, firefighters, police, and other first responders, military personnel, and hospital night staff must keep awake during the wee hours of the night. Some cleaning, restaurant, retail, and factory staff must keep vigil, working through the night to complete their work.

At some point, every person has cause to be awake through the night, whether for work, for play, for a child or ailing loved one, for an emergency, or for a long night out. Depending on the circumstances, it can be either exhausting or exhilarating, or some combination of both.

Many people keep awake to accomplish something. There’s a documentary called The Barkley Marathons: The Race That Eats Its Young. It’s a 100+ mile endurance race in the Tennessee mountains. It includes five loops of 20 miles, though the participants will tell you that the loop is actually closer to a marathon, or 26 miles. The race is 1/3 on trails and 2/3 off trails, and runners often get lost. The loop goes over mountains and through huge briars, and over the course of the race, runners gain and lose 60,000 feet of elevation, for a total of 120,000 feet of elevation change.

Completing the race takes five loops, and almost no one finishes. Runners run day and night, and they have only sixty hours to complete the race. If they sleep at all, it’s only for an hour or two over the course of that sixty hours.

Talk about keeping awake.

The start of the race is variable. Runners are told to show up at a particular day and time, but the race start time varies according to the race directors’ whims. A conch shell is blown sometime within a 12-hour window, signaling that the race starts in one hour. This could be anytime between midnight and noon. Some years the race begins in the dark; some years it doesn’t.

Keep awake. Keep alert.

Lazarus, co-creator of the Barkley Marathons, says, “People who have trouble with [any of the various last minute or informal race details] are not going to do well on the course, because [no matter what,] it’s not going to happen the way you planned it.”

This, essentially, captures both the spirit of Advent and the theme of our Gospel reading today.

Keep awake. Be alert, and remember: this is going to be difficult. It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.

At the beginning of this chapter of Mark, Jesus is walking out of the temple in Jerusalem with his disciples when they point up and exclaim, “What large stones, and what large buildings!” (Mark 13:1). Most of the disciples are rural guys, after all — like many people who go to a major city for the first time, the huge structures that they see can be impressive.

Jesus cryptically tells them, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.”

If you imagine someone saying this in Times Square today, you’re approximating the effect Jesus had by saying this. He’s telling them that disaster is coming, and it has a chilling effect on the disciples. They’re intrigued, naturally, and want to know more about all of this, namely, when it will happen.

Jesus tells them, in so many words: keep awake. And he doesn’t give them specifics, I imagine because, like Lazarus from the Barkley Marathons says, “It’s not going to happen the way you planned it.” They want the specifics so that they can make a plan, when the best thing to do is simply keep alert.

As Christmas approaches, many of us begin (or continue) our fervent preparations to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Clergy and musicians and choirs prepare for services, as many of us prepare for travel or the arrival of loved ones or family dinners or community parties or frantically wondering what we will do or where we will go this year.

The coming of Christmas creates, in most of us, a sense of both longing and urgency. We call ourselves to keep alert, keep awake, to work hard to get ready for this holiday that’s coming whether we like it or not.

And many years, it doesn’t happen the way we plan it. We have to adapt and adjust and keep awake — we have to stay on our toes.

As we stress over the coming holiday, Advent calls us to prepare for something much bigger than the yearly arrival of Christmas. Advent calls us to pay attention to the world around us, even as it is wracked with suffering, violence, and hunger. The first Sunday of Advent begins a story of cosmic proportions, with the sun being darkened and the stars falling from heaven.

Advent, in all the readings today, reminds us that our ancestors once called out for a Savior, and that we in the Church wait for the return of one. We wait, and we hope, knowing nothing other than to keep working, keep watching, and keep awake.

In our world torn by pain and division, we look at the pain all around us and we wonder, “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?

In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever.

But this season that we begin today — Advent — has a presence that calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” It is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming that is even bigger than Christmas.

The world still waits for justice. The world still waits for peace.

The world still waits for God.

Like the Barkley Marathoners, and like the disciples, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.

Peace on earth.

Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.

“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37)

 

The Rev. Anna Tew is a Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born in rural Alabama, considers Atlanta home, and lives in and adores New England. She has worked in a variety of ministry settings, urban and rural, both in the parish and in hospital chaplaincy. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics.

Download the sermon for Advent 1 (B).

Reading the signs on our journey, 1 Advent (B) – 2014

November 30, 2014

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-37

Imagine traveling in a foreign city where English is not the official language. All the street signs, menus, billboards, bus schedules, everything needed to navigate the streets are in a different language. You stop people on the street for assistance, but it seems no one speaks English.

For novice travelers, this could be a scary and intimidating situation, whereas more seasoned and experienced travelers seem to relish such a challenge. Fortunately, today there are electronic devices that can translate foreign text into English. All a person has to do is point the device at the written text you want translated, and – voila! – it gives the English translation.

Sometimes Christians may feel as if their spiritual journeys have taken them to an unknown place where all the signs are in a strange language, and they just can’t seem to figure out where they are or where they are supposed to go. As much as they attempt to discern the signs in their lives, they find themselves feeling more and more confused while trying to navigate in a strange land.

For new Christians sitting in the pews, reading the signs and navigating their new surroundings can become tricky and very confusing. This is especially true with all the conflicting religious messages coming at them from every direction. But whether a new convert or a lifelong Christian, the spiritual journey is wrought with signs along the way requiring translation.

Making things even more troublesome are the modern-day, self-proclaimed prophets who incessantly talk about the End Times. They use scripture to weave fanciful tales of horrific proportions, which, if accepted as truth without a discerning heart, can derail people in their journeys.

To a similar degree, Jesus’ disciples were confused by the signs of their times. Israel was under Roman rule, contemporary prophets were routinely spouting apocalyptic predictions, and the Jews were desperate for a Messiah who would reinstate the Davidic line and establish Israel to its former glory as an independent kingdom. In the midst of all the confusing signs and false prophets, Jesus warned his disciples – and his believers today – to stay awake.

This implies being alert and cognizant of what is happening in our surroundings, living in a constant state of readiness and anticipation. It does not, however, suggest believers should be pouring over scripture in a vain attempt to find a prophetic interpretation for every single event in history or in the news. Much time and energy has been wasted on End Time books, movies and prophecies. Now is the time to focus on proclaiming the Good News in Christ by being his hands reaching out to those in need.

As the church enters into this Advent season, the world is in a race to read the signs of the time in an attempt to make sense of all that is going on. The news media is rife with reports of increased terrorism, nations rising against nations, and rising religious extremism and intolerance. Political and religious leaders are under continual scrutiny as reports of indiscretion and malfeasance surface, and crime seems to be taking over the streets. Diseases such as Ebola indiscriminately kill, and people are being pitted against each other in a continual competition for limited resources while those who are vulnerable in society suffer the most.

When looked at as a whole, we can easily begin to wonder what all this means. It’s no wonder that some begin to interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. Misguided religious zeal and emotional nihilism are ripe and dnagerous in times such as these. People begin to lose hope and an insidious spiritual and intellectual apathy sets in.

In the midst of suffering and despair, the world longs for some cosmic event that will wipe away all that is wrong in a single stroke. In the midst of doomsday predictions are those who warn that Christ’s return is just around the corner. Despite the confidence of some who say Christ’s Second Advent is imminent, Jesus clearly states that no one knows the time of his appearance, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Apocalyptic predictions in social media and from pulpits are indicative of the fear and anxiety filling people’s hearts in light of life’s uncertainties; however, the church’s emphasis on scripture, tradition and reason is the lens through which these signs can be put into focus and better understood. Part of remaining alert in these times is a commitment to continual study of scripture in light of historic teachings of the church, developing critical-thinking skills, and seeking a discerning spirit.

The church is firm in her belief in the return of Christ Jesus, but exactly how and when this culminating cosmic event will take place remains a mystery. Scripture doesn’t give a clear explanation; however, it does provide signs to help navigate life’s journey with the help of the Holy Spirit until the Lord’s Second Advent. Until Christ’s return, the church is reminded to remain awake as she diligently carries on the ministry of the Lord. She learns from the past while maintaining a confident faith in the future, all the time tending to the work of the Kingdom of God today. Now is not the time to be caught sleeping while the master is away, but to be busy about managing his affairs. The people of the world may be driven by fear and anxiety, but believers can be confident that God will strengthen them to the end, so that they may be blameless on the day of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In light of all that troubles the world today, this Advent presents a unique opportunity for the church to stand in the gap and proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus through word and deed. Now is the time to be diligent in proclaiming the Kingdom of God in word and deed. If believers are to interpret any message from the signs of the time, it is that God’s grace is sufficient to sustain his people even in the worst of circumstances.

History teaches us that the Church Militant is victorious even under the most extreme conditions. The early church faced systematic persecution under Roman domination, but their hope in Christ’s Second Coming gave them the courage to boldly proclaim their faith in Christ. Eventually, the church settled into the knowledge that the Second Coming was an event that would take place sometime in the distant future, and they began to systematically spread the Good News that is found in Jesus Christ.

With every generation that passes since Christ’s ascension, the danger of complacency threatens the church’s overall mission to proclaim the Good News. Some in the church are happy living with the status quo, while others adopt a “religious country club” mentality. Even worse and more detrimental to the mission of the church is when believers become embroiled in debates that result in division. Self-proclaimed prophets have misread the so-called signs and made false eschatological predictions of apocalyptic proportions, only to push people away from the church rather than draw them into the Kingdom. They fail to listen to Christ’s words spoken to his disciples in our gospel reading today. The church proclaims that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again in the Eucharist.

In the meantime, the church has a job to do until the master returns.

Whether Christ returns today, tomorrow or in a hundred years, today is the day of salvation. If one looks closely at the signs of the times, they point to the One who holds all the answers to all that ails the world. Christ’s mission to the church remains as clear today as when he first sent his disciples into the world.

May she be faithful to proclaiming God’s love for all creation, and labor tirelessly in proclaiming God’s justice and righteousness until the master returns.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran, and he has more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region of California.

We are all searching, 1 Advent (B) – 2011

November 27, 2011

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

We are all searching for something or someone. Not just the small things, like our house keys or a parking space, but also bigger things, deeper things, people, places, and relationships that we hope will fulfill us, bring us joy, grant us peace. Many people are searching for a job, but also more than a job, for the sense of purpose and value and security the hoped-for job will bring. Many people are searching for wisdom, but also more than just an education, for the sense of truth and goodness and direction that we hope real wisdom will bring. Many people are searching for relationships, but also more than Mr. or Mrs. Right, for the sense of fulfillment and flourishing we hope loving and being loved will bring. We are all searching for something or someone.

But experience teaches us that that something or someone is elusive. We photograph the perfect sunset, but when we look at the pictures later, it looks rather ordinary. The excitement of a new career settles into the humdrum of a job. The first flush of a new relationship turns into coordinating schedules and dates. Even when we find what we think we are looking for, we may find the experience quite exquisite but also leaving us unsatisfied.

That is why spiritual writers tell us that what we are all searching for, whether we realize it or not, is God. The longed-for thing or person who will ultimately fulfill us, bring us joy, and grant us peace is God. Everything else, even the exquisitely true and good and beautiful things of this life, will leave us unsatisfied at some level. Life is transient, and we continue our search for true fulfillment and flourishing and love.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells his disciples to “keep awake.” This admonition comes at the end of a long apocalyptic discourse about the end times. He and his disciples had left the temple, and he told them that someday it would be thrown down, not one stone left upon another. The disciples naturally enough ask when this will be, and Jesus responds with a long discourse that involves apocalyptic signs like the sun being darkened and the stars falling like the heaven. It’s all rather complex and confusing, but in the midst of it there is an assurance that some day the Son of Man will return to set things right.

This will be good news for some and bad news for others. We ought to prepare so that we can receive the coming of the Lord as good news. And yet, no one knows, not even the Son, when all these things will take place. But take place they will.

Therefore, Jesus says, keep awake, keep alert, and keep looking for the true Lord who will bring all things to fulfillment. There will be many pretenders, many people saying, “Look here is the messiah” or “Look! There he is!” But do not believe in these pretenders. They are false and they will let you down. Trust only in the true God, the Lord of heaven and earth, and his only Son. Keep awake for someday he will come.

Apocalyptic language is hard for us to understand today. But the basic message is easy enough. We are all looking for something, and that something is God. There will be many pretenders and false messiahs who will try to offer us the fulfillment that only God can provide. Remember the allure of the perfect job or perfect wisdom or perfect relationship. All these things inevitably let us down because they can’t deliver the promises they make. They are good enough in themselves, but when we look to them as our ultimate source of truth and meaning, they inevitably let us down and leave us feeling unsatisfied. More than that, we can be damaged in the process: broken promises, broken relationships, broken hearts, broken spirits. Only God can truly fulfill us and the desires of the whole groaning universe. Jesus tells us to keep awake, to turn away from false messiahs, and to look for the coming of the true God. The Good News is that even as we flit about in our search for truth and meaning, God in his holiness and his graciousness is already racing to meet us. God is coming. The Son of Man is coming. Keep awake!

Advent is the season in the church year when we try to reflect on who or what we are truly searching for. It is a time to meditate and pray about what it is that will fulfill our hearts’ desires. The Good News of Advent is that God is also searching for us. The story of Advent is not a story of a God waiting to see if we human beings will finally figure it out and find God. The story of Advent is that God comes to us, and better yet, that God has already found us. We may feel like we are always looking for something or someone, but the Good News of Advent is that God has already come to us, is coming to us, and will keep coming to us. In our searching and seeking, we often fail to see that the gift has already been given, the gift of “God with us,” the gift of Emmanuel.

The word “advent” means “coming,” and that refers to the coming of Christ in the past, in the present, and in the future. Advent is saying that there is never a time when Christ is not with you, yesterday and today and tomorrow. At its deepest level, Advent is an invitation to give up our search and let ourselves be found by the God who came among us as child, by the God who comes into our hearts, by the God who will meet us in every future. In the search, in the finding, in the daily living of our lives, we have already been found and loved by the God who is with us always, even to the end of the ages.

Elam Davies, long-time pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, tells of a time when he and his wife visited a spot on the coast of Wales called the Great Orme. The Great Orme is a giant rock, right at the seaside, and people gather on it to watch sunsets. On clear evenings, people watch the yellow sun drop into the sea, backlighting strands of clouds in a way that turns the whole horizon into a kaleidoscope. Because the sunsets are so spectacular, people at the Great Orme often weep. One night, while Davies and his wife were there, a beat-up, old car drew alongside of them. In this car were a couple of elderly people and also a man who seemed to be their son. Some accident or illness had come to this son with the result that he was clearly disabled. He lay in the back seat, limp and exhausted. Then, as the great ball of fire began its final descent to the sea, the two old folks got out of the car and came round to the back seat. They reached in, hoisted their son up to the sitting position, and maneuvered him forward to the edge of the seat. And just as the sun in its full flame, in a final burst of glory, dropped below the rim of the world, the parents reached under their boy’s chin, raised his head, and pointed him out there toward the horizon. Davies says, “And I knew at that moment that God can dazzle us with all the magnificence of the universe, but that the secret of the universe lies in a love that comes to us in our weakness and in our need.”

The season of Advent begins today. It is the season of hope. Stay alert. Keep awake. Lift up your heads. Look to the horizon. Look to the future. Look for the God who comes to us, who came to us, who is with us, now and until the end of the ages.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Joseph S. Pagano is the associate rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Parish in Annapolis, Maryland.

Rise! Shine!,1 Advent (B) – 2008

November 30, 2008

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

“Rise! Shine! For the light is a-comin’!
“My Lord says he’s comin’ by and by.”

The words of the African American spiritual speak to the central theme of Advent and especially to this first Sunday. It is a firm declaration to “cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” for as we read in Mark, “the Son of Man” is coming with “great power and glory.”

Let us be clear: the God depicted here is not a serene and docile deity. Isaiah calls upon a potent God who would “tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake.” And our actions in response to this coming should be no less robust.

At first look, we welcome such a dominating and mighty God to respond to our needs and concerns. Yet we who believe in a divine being from whom all things flow, also know that such a transcendent force can “bend history.” Put bluntly, if we are not prepared for God’s response to our prayers for the Creator’s presence, the appearance of the divine can be unsettling and threatening to our very lives and our very order. Such a forceful manifestation can bring about significant change. Our desire for the Lord’s coming brings with it risk as well as reward.

There is a little-known fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm entitled “Der Mond,” or in English, “The Moon.” It is a short tale that was adapted by the German composer Carl Orff into an opera in one act. It involves four young rowdy misfits from a land where there is no light – no sun in the day and no moon or stars at night. These are people who “walk in darkness.” Sound familiar?

These lads travel to another land where they find the moon hanging on a tree. They steal the moon and bring it back to their land where they charge people money for their use of the moonlight. Eventually, as happens to all of us, they grow old and die. As each one dies, one quarter of the moon is cut away and buried with one of its owners until there is no more light. In the opera, Petrus, “who rules the sky,” descends to the dead (sound familiar?) and retrieves the four pieces of the moon and hangs it in the sky for the benefit of all.

Yes, this tale is a modern retelling of the age-old belief that God brings light to the people who, in the words of the prophet, “walk in darkness.” Yes, this is about the season of Advent, which alludes to an arrival, a beginning. It is best understood as a dawning, as in the early morn of a new day. Yes, like the four misfits, this is a time when we come upon and marvel in a new Light. Yes, like the four young men, we can hoard and hide the light. And yes, we, like Petrus in Carl Orff’s opera, are called to share this light with the world.

There is an intrinsic understanding that, no matter what, we welcome the coming of the Lord and that it can happen at any time. Indeed, during the course of our lives, God appears and reappears. At times, we are that very light to the world in what we say and what we do. When we are called to serve and share a warm and friendly smile, we are restored; God’s face shines through our own countenance, and we are saved.

The expectation is that we are God’s hands, God’s light on this earth. God calls us to shine a light, to be witnesses to his mercy and love; not only through our words, but also in our works. We are called to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner. When we serve those in need – like the student who needs tutoring, the lonely homebound person who needs company, those who have lost their homes and possessions because of a hurricane, earthquake, flooding or fire, or those who mourn – we, as in the words of the spiritual, “rise and shine.” We are witnesses to the Lord’s coming – symbolically on Christmas Day, and for real today and all the tomorrows of our lives.

Those who first sang the words of the spiritual, shackled by the chains of slavery, looked with hope to a new day – to a brighter day when the darkness of this inhumane treatment would give way to the light of freedom. Indeed, in response to their oppression, they sang these words with faith and hope. And in this age when we encounter personal and communal challenges that test our mettle, we would do well to join these forebearers in our common history by not cursing the darkness but always seeking the light. Yes, this is the meaning of Advent.

Jesus says in the gospel reading, “Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. 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. And what I say to you, I say to all: Keep awake.”

So:

“Rise! Shine! For the light is a-comin’!
“My Lord says he’s comin’ by and by!”

 

— John E. Colón is an active Episcopal layperson and is director of Human Resource Management at the Episcopal Church Center in New York City. He attends Grace Church, Brooklyn Heights, in the Diocese of Long Island.

1 Advent (B) – 2005

November 27, 2005

Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:24-27

There’s an interesting quote – from an unexpected source – that applies to this First Day of Advent, from a book you may have read to your children or grandchildren, or that you may remember from your own childhood. The book is by Dr. Seuss, and is entitled One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The quote to consider today is brief:

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere.

From there to here,
from here to there,
funny things
are everywhere.

Funny things are everywhere! And there are two things funny about this First Sunday of Advent, the start of a new church year. The first of them is that, here at the start of a new year, we don’t look back to the beginning, but we look forward to the end. Here on the first day of the new church year, we do not focus on the past, but we anticipate the future where Christ promises to meet us.

The second funny thing about today is related to the first. When we look forward to the end, when we anticipate the future, we do not treat this conclusion as some distant, far-off event. It is near at hand. It may be as close as the next second. So imminent is it, in fact, that the future comes and takes up residence in the present. The Christ who will arrive with power and great glory at the end of time comes to us also before the end of time.

But Christ does not wait until the end of the world, or even until our death, in order to approach us. He is always appearing; he is the lord of a million disguises.

A few years ago, the Associated Press reported a miracle. [Detroit Free Press, November 28, 1996.] In Bethlehem, at the Church of the Nativity (which is built on the traditional site of Christ’s birth) an icon of our Lord was seen to wink at worshipers there. Did this really happen? We can’t be sure, but if it really did, the one Palestinian Christian quoted in the news report, understood the significance of the event. Nadia Banoura said of the icon of Christ that, “He moved his eyelid up and down several times. This is a message from God that he is everywhere.”

That’s the point. God is everywhere. An old icon in a famous church may or may not wink at worshipers, but the living Christ winks at us all the time, but too often our souls are asleep, and we fail to get the joke.

What is it that drags us down, that drugs us, so that we do not notice the face of Christ looking at us, winking at us, asking for some response as we encounter him? What is it that drags us down?

We take too seriously the small things, and we ignore what’s important. We see the tinsel, but overlook the tree. Small preoccupations – hurts and desires and failings and achievements – loom large for us, far too large, and crowd out the glory of a greater world.

What is it that lifts us up, that enables us to notice the wink and laugh at the joke? Simply this: the expectation of Christ present and active.

A funny thing about our church calendar is how often the name “Gregory” appears. No name on the calendar appears more frequently among the lesser feasts. There are four Gregories commemorated: Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome; Gregory the Illuminator, who brought the Gospel to the Armenian people; and two additional Gregories who were bishops, friends, and eminent theologians – Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa.

Why so many Gregories? Maybe there’s divine humor here. The name “Gregory” means “watchful, vigilant.” Perhaps these Gregories stand as a reminder that we are to be watchful, alert to Christ winking at us through the circumstances of life. The spiritual rigor to which we are called is to set aside our small preoccupations and recognize what’s really important. We are to allow ourselves to be lifted up by the expectation of Christ present and active.

Each of us can take “Gregory” as an Advent name, whether we are man or woman, boy or girl, we can add this name to our own in the depths of our hearts for the period between now and Christmas, and let it remind us to be vigilant and watchful. And so we will have “Charles Gregory” and “Mary Gregory” and “Rhonda Gregory” and “Jason Gregory” — and so forth.

Then the tinsel will not trap us and keep us from seeing the tree. We will look past our small preoccupations – the hurts and desires and failings and achievements – and see instead our source of life: the Christ who winks and jokes and lifts us up.

There’s something more as well: when we recognize Christ in the course of every day, then he will be no stranger to our eyes. When he comes again at the end of time, we will be fit to meet him. Without fear or shame or “un-familiarty,” we will rejoice to behold his appearance.

From there to here,
from here to there,
the Holy One
is everywhere.

from there to here,
from here to there,
the Holy One
is everywhere.

— The Very Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Port Huron, Michigan, and is author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications, 2003).