Keeping watch

Watchful Christians are needed in a world that no longer feels a sense of urgency about anything spiritual.

By Molly T. Marshall

I recently heard a child grumble: “Do we really have to celebrate Jesus’ birth every year? Isn’t once enough?”

Some of us may echo this sentiment more than we dare to say publicly, especially as we take a bracing look at the demands of our crammed-full schedules. The consumerist frenzy that wraps itself around late November and December exhausts and contributes to the spiritual emptiness many experience.

Traditions surrounding the measured pace of Advent, a liturgical season Baptists have been willing to embrace, can transform our capacity to welcome the child anew. Intentionality in preparation allows a savoring of this “so hallowed and so gracious” time of year, as Shakespeare calls it.

Wendy Wright describes the season of Advent as “the vigil.” We embark on the spiritual practice of keeping watch in the season of Christ’s coming. A vigil is a period of expectation that calls us to be on the alert.

In a sense, all of life is lived on the watch. We watch our digital gadgets, the news, the stock market; all watch the weather. Students everywhere watch for the semester’s end -- and teachers do, too!

One of the texts associated with the beginning of Advent is Mark 13, an urgent warning about watchfulness. The chapter builds toward a great crescendo: “Watch and pray, for you know not the time, watch therefore ... I say to you all, be on the watch!”

In the stained-glass windows of the medieval cathedrals of Europe, you will see this verse portrayed in the figure of a face: one eye covered in prayer, the other open, alert and on the watch.

Many of us grew up in churches where the imminent return of the Lord was a frequent sermon topic. Some of us went to bed at night wondering if we had studied for the math test in vain. Others of us who had not studied prayed that Jesus would come that very night! Most of us wanted him to wait until we could indulge in some grown-up sinning.

Somewhere along the way, we fell prey to the same sort of cynicism plaguing many in New Testament times -- the delay of the return of the Lord made it seem incredible. Little by little, we so relaxed the tension about expectation, about watching, that we feel no sense of urgency about anything spiritual.

Thus our waiting has become a demonstration of passivity; it is not actively watchful. Yet, watchful persons are needed in this age, persons who will see the Christ in his distressing disguise as the poor.

Keeping watch with them will help us monitor our use of money. Luther always talked about three conversions: our heart, our head, and our purse -- the latter being the most difficult.

Many of us will overspend during this season, thinking that if we purchase just a few more things we will really have Christmas. To believe this is to fall victim to one of the counter-visions that informs contemporary American culture, that of “exaggerated expectations, as Clyde Crews names it. We need to be watchful in our use of money, and we need to offer it where most needed.

Advent is at hand, and quiet, expectant waiting is appropriate. The desert monastics tell us that the surest way into the heart of God is to be still. Watching begins with stillness. As light fades earlier each evening, we look for the true light coming into the world, and the light of the world comes in the form of a baby. As we keep watch, we will hear his birthing cry once again, insistently urging us to make room for him.

O come to our hearts, Lord Jesus; there is room in our hearts for thee.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.