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Each time I watch the film Steel Magnolias, I fast-forward from the time Shelby falls down in the kitchen to when they are arriving at the cemetery for her funeral. (If the person next to you doesn’t seem to understand this reference, have mercy on them and invite them to your house to watch the movie. And bring tissues).
I can’t bear to watch the part when Shelby collapses, leaving the baby sitting on the floor next to the bubbling pot on the stove.
We find ourselves at the hospital with M’Lynn at her daughter’s bedside, reading to her. She stretches her legs and runs her fingers through her hair as Shelby lies there in a coma. When Drum, Shelby’s father, comes in at one point, M’Lynn won’t even really look at him, as she pleads with her daughter.
“Open your eyes, Shelby. Open–open your eyes!”
Who knew that this scene, with a comatose Julia Roberts and a pleading Sally Field could encapsulate the heart of the Advent Season so powerfully: Open your eyes Shelby. Open your eyes, people. Open–open your eyes!
You know what time it is now, how it is the moment for us to wake from sleep.
Keep awake therefore…
Might we argue that the foundational element of our spiritual practice is to wake up, to arouse from sleep, to open our eyes? I have to tell you this is the heart of Christian practice for me–the absolute core of things: Sleepers Wake. Keep awake therefore. Be ready. Be on the look out.
St. Augustine once said that the whole business of this life is to cleanse the eye of the heart whereby God may be seen. The assumption therefore–and I cannot stress how this foundational element reorients our perception of both the world around us and our inner world–is that God is always coming into view for us, and we are called to prepare ourselves, to open our eyes so that we can behold God when he comes.
For me, “being a Christian”–and is it even appropriate to say “being a Christian”, as though we are already “there,” as though we have already accomplished being a follower of Jesus and aren’t always starting again or taking the next bumbling step?– “yearning to more fully be a Christian” is about waking up to the reality that God has brought into this world through Jesus Christ.
Jesus seems keen on this call for us to wake up. The culture seems hell-bent (literally) on keeping us in a peculiar coma of discontent and greed, of numbness and self-obsession. We should pay attention to how the call of Christ truly does challenge so many of the culture’s assumptions about what is worth our time and energy. Can we notice where the resistance in us sits when we feel pinched by the Gospel? Can we locate the tension in our bodies when we feel a bit uncomfortable by something the Gospel says?
Jesus spent his time walking the dusty roads of Roman-occupied Palestine calling people to pay attention. Every day.
In St. John’s Gospel account, he spit in the dirt, made a little mud, and rubbed it in one man’s eyes to give him sight. In St. Mark’s Gospel account, he spit in a man’s eyes and asked him what he saw. When the man’s vision wasn’t quite clear– “I see people but they look like trees” he said– Jesus touched his eyes again, healed him, and then told him to go straight home instead of to the village. Jesus knew a deep truth: once you see what you haven’t seen before–once you really see–you’re going to have a difficult time fitting into the village’s old patterns. Best to go home and prepare yourself for the awkward conversations to come when you try to describe to your family and friends what you are seeing now that Jesus has got ahold of you.
I don’t know about you, but there were points during our journey last week when I wanted to grab some folks by the shoulders, shake them until their teeth rattled in their heads, and yell “Wake up!” Can you not see the bigger picture here? Perhaps they felt the same way about me. Probably so.
Before we get to the stories of angelic announcements, Advent places the call of the prophets before our faces and hearts. We need to start with the prophets’ call to really prime our souls for the work ahead. And the prophets’ eyes and hearts were absolutely fixed on calling the people to wake up from a peculiar psycho-socio-religious numbness of greed and self-obsession, from a spiritual coma in which their religious practice had become complacent and oh, so comfortably ensconced in political power. This is always a dangerous combination.
Isaiah urged the people to imagine and see a day when the too-oft repeated pattern of violence and political arrogance was discarded:
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.
Isaiah didn’t have time for the baseless and petty criticism that one’s religious practice was becoming too political. Lives and souls were at stake and it was time for folks to wake up and literally see the light.
O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
Open your eyes, people. Open your eyes!
St. Paul takes up this prophetic and visionary mantle and speaks to the very heart of the Empire in Rome: You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. It is time to really look and see–and step aside from the works of darkness to more fully practice the transforming faith of Jesus Christ. And sneak peek: when it comes to the Empire, such a practice of faith will cost us dearly.
Open your eyes, people! Open your eyes!
We must always be ready, Jesus tells us, because the transforming reality of the Spirit will break into our lives at any moment–at every moment. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. This Living Spirit will challenge every single controlling and grasping script we have: every impulse for safety and security, affection and esteem, and power and control.
These impulses, these patterns of grasping behavior, are what feed our particular numbness, the peculiar spiritual coma that Advent seeks to rouse us out of. So make no mistake about it, behind all the pretty bows and decking of halls and lighting of candles, we are called to a profound degree of spiritual work!
An Advent observed faithfully is not for wimps. (Perhaps we can put that on t-shirts next year?) This is indeed a radical time, a season that shakes us up, breaks into our old patterns of thought and behavior, and provokes our hearts to consider more fully just what it means to follow Jesus.
To put it bluntly, before we ever sing “Do you see what I see,” we have to actually be willing to see, willing to look at both the world around us and the way Jesus is transforming it–and calling us to share in that transforming work.
So, perhaps it is not a stretch to imagine God Herself sitting by our bedside, coaxing us and encouraging us–shaking us even?–as we lie there in our own peculiar spiritual coma. She knows the work She is calling us to do–and She knows what it will cost us and the fullness of life that we will share in. She knows what is coming!
So, with a love we cannot even begin to imagine, she leans over our face and tells each one of us: Open your eyes, people! Open–open your eyes!
The Rev. Dr. Stuart Higginbotham
December 1, 2019