Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come. It is like a man travelling abroad: he has gone from home, and left his servants in charge, each with his own task; and he has told the doorkeeper to stay awake. So stay awake, because you do not know when the master of the house is coming, evening, midnight, cockcrow, dawn; if he comes unexpectedly, he must not find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake!’
This teaching expresses the spirit of Advent. Like Advent, it is not about delay or abstraction. Yet, it’s hard to see what the simple instruction to ‘stay awake’ really means. If we don’t see what it means how can we obey it? The master has left his servants alone. This is like the feeling that God is personally absent but still impersonally present in the laws of the universe or Murphy’s Law (if something can go wrong it will).
I was travelling to spend a weekend alone on retreat before a medical operation. I discovered on arrival at the airport that my bag had been stolen from the train. I had to report it in French to an official who could not take his eyes off his mobile phone and treated me with barely-concealed contempt. Then the flight was long delayed. I decided to use the opportunity to get a gadget which I had long needed or at least wanted. I set it up successfully and then it promptly died on me. Real, sudden, unfixable inoperancy. The next day I had to go back and waste hours at the nightmarish shopping mall to get it replaced. My retreat weekend was ruined and why did I feel to blame? Getting to hospital was almost a relief because something seemed so intent on obstructing me. The day after the operation I lost my glasses causing great inconvenience for more than the week it took to replace them. I was obliged to be patient (who could I be angry at?) but there was a sad sense of a pattern of hostility
I wasn’t complaining. But was I imagining a pattern? No, they were real events, even if they reminded me of Murphy’s Law that ‘if something can go wrong it will and at the worst possible time.’ It felt more humorous than hostile. Was I expected to understand this oddly linked set of events? No, I simply had to embrace them indifferently, impersonally, without judging or explaining them without resentment which is a mask of anger.
Maybe this is what ‘staying awake’ means. After all, who are we? Servants, not self-employed, less like a snobbish butler, more like a house-slave. Not understanding the master’s will and yet having to accept and obey it produces at times a cold impersonality. The master is absent and we don’t know when he will return and end the run of bad luck. But come home he will. This still feels a shallow, literal interpretation and not what Advent as a spiritual practice is about. It is not Father Christmas but the invisible Master who returns on Christmas Day. If birth is really a return, everything has a purpose.
Uncomplaining, generous acceptance may seem beyond our capacity. Nevertheless, the lesson is always: more humility. Simone Weill said ‘humility is attentive patience’. In misfortune we learn to be ready for the unexpected. Our wakefulness, then, becomes joy.