Advent 1(B): Keep Awake!

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By: The Rev. Anna Tew

These days, it looks like all of us are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent. Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or fundamentalist religion or even whiteness. Hate is being lived out on message boards in the form of things like white supremacy and religious fundamentalism.

We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion and their effects on young men in particular. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or violent religious fundamentalists either at home or abroad?

It seems pretty easy to me.

Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them. The truth is, it’s not just the young and the male. We all need to be part of something bigger, and we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic.

The good news is that today, so has Advent.

The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s cosmic. Stars fall and the universe moves. Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed. And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!

Various extremist groups have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If he takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know. If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.

These days, extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the internet and even into the streets in violence. Frankly, I believe it to be quite childlike. It’s inventing a story, or imagining yourself in someone else’s invented story, in order to make yourself the hero.

I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story. Contrary to what you might think, this Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control. We desperately want to be the brave heroes who fight the bad guys.

The truth is that we’re more enslaved to our own brokenness, anger, and prejudices than anything. Deep down, most of us are scared, hurting, angry, insecure people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. And so, in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender. As George Orwell concluded in his book Nineteen Eighty Four, there must always be an enemy.

The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves, and waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with all of its delicious delusions of conflict and triumph.

So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill. Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to it. The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.

Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.

I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, and the joy, the complex people, the complex situations. No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.

As a classmate of mine pointed out to me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone. I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.

Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.

And I realized that I too had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved. I could, before it was even cool,take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.

But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from rising.

Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn. We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued. This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do.

So I invite you, therefore, to take the Advent blue pill. Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.

Rather than framing the entire story around us, however, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world. Advent has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, in the dead of winter: “Keep awake!” Because we know, deep in our bones: will not be winter forever.

Advent’s 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 to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with. Like our ancestors before us, we wait in the night, 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 30-something Lutheran pastor serving Our Savior’s Lutheran Church (ELCA) in South Hadley, Massachusetts. A product of several places, she was born and grew up in rural Alabama, thinks of Atlanta as home, and lives in and adores New England. In her spare time, Anna enjoys climbing the nearby mountains, traveling, exploring cities and nightlife, and keeping up with politics and pop culture.

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