First Sunday of Advent: Stay Awake!

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Stay awake! The phrase echoes through scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent. 

  • Keep awake for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 
  • Now is the moment for you to wake from sleep.
  • The night is far gone, the day is near.

Stay awake! And in that biblical phrase, I hear “Stay woke!” 

“Woke” as a personal/political stance means being alert to injustice in society and especially to racism. “Woke”—originating in African American culture and language—became widely familiar after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014.  

 “Woke” has deep roots in African American culture and language. Blues musician Lead Belly (Huddie Ledbetter) wrote and performed “Scottsboro Boys” in 1938. The song was a protest of the “legal lynching” of nine young Black men falsely accused of raping two white women on a train. At the end of a recording of “Scottsboro Boys, the musician Lead Belly warns, “So I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” In this context, “woke” meant being alert to racism and to the very real, physical danger that racism brings to Black people. 

As protests against police shootings of Black people grew stronger, so did the political backlash. Right wing media and politicians don’t want you to be woke. They want you to go to sleep, want you to close your eyes to injustice and, especially, to racism. 

Which brings us back to the scripture readings for the First Sunday of Advent. What does it mean today to “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming?” (Matthew 24:42). 

How do we respond to Paul’s admonition in Romans— 

“Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers ;the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”

the light of day on our country’s past and present racism is hard. Facing the truth of our societal failures is hard. Laying aside the works of darkness is hard. Maryknoll’s Advent reflection identifies some of those works of darkness:

“Darkness and violence often threaten to overcome our world. … The violence of weapons. Violence against our common home. The violence of exclusion, discrimination, and indifference.” 

 Stay awake! Look with clear eyes at the sins of racism, exclusion, indifference. Do not look away from the problems of the world, because this is our world and these are our problems. We are called to put on the armor of light and to love one another and this world we share. We are called to work together to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to put right what is wrong, to mend what is broken, and to bring peace and justice to the world we share. 

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