e-mail us


A time to wake up


In the first stage of my Jesuit training I helped out in the kindergarten at a Catholic grade school in Denver’s inner city. Naptime is a central feature of kindergarten life. Naptime at Loyola Grade School was memorable for being both a respite and an ordeal. The respite was the 15-minute oasis of calm and quiet in the middle of an otherwise chaotic day. The ordeal came in the form of little Joshua, our own 5-year-old Rip Van Winkle. He’d fall into such a deep sleep that waking him was a major effort. The school nurse said there was nothing medically wrong with him. And the job wasn’t over once Joshua’s eyes were finally open. Left to his own devices, he’d go right back to sleep, drifting away while the other children were getting their shoes on and putting away their sleeping mats. Once fully and resolutely awake, Joshua was a delightful child. The hard part was getting him awake, and keeping him awake for those first crucial minutes.

For years I thought of Advent primarily as a time of waiting, and a time of expectation. Not anymore, at least not primarily. Perhaps I’ve grown tired, cranky and impatient. Perhaps I’ve just come to realize the importance of awareness and wakefulness. Advent is about getting awake.

There’s no indication in scripture that Jesus put much stock in waiting. I’m not even sure he was a patient person. He was understanding and he surely appreciated the complexities of the human heart, but he was altogether too filled with the urgency of it all to be interested in waiting for things to happen on their own or in waiting to see what people would do. And so he counsels not patience, but wakefulness and watchfulness. That he does so in his final days on earth, after letting his followers know that he expects to suffer a brutal and ignominious death, only heightens the urgency of his plea.

Whether we call it getting awake, or looking for God in all things or simple awareness, there’s no substitute for an attitude of graceful vigilance. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, though. Getting awake and staying awake aren’t easy. Institutions, whether commercial, political or religious, seem to thrive on our being somnolent, impressionable and pliable. For all the talk of “truth” out there, most of us exist in a world of illusion, fostered in part by television, our most pervasive medium, and one that specializes in illusion. The problem is that we can’t deal with things as they are until we see them as they are, and we know next to nothing if we’re lost in some televised dreamland. If we’re getting all our news from AOLCNNTimeWarnerViacomDisney, we’re still sleeping. If we’re accepting uncritically what others tell us about the state of the world or the state of our nation or the state of our church, we’re still sleeping. A sleeping child makes a sweet picture, but sooner or later sleeping children have to wake up.

Sometimes, though not very often, we wake up mostly on our own. More and more Americans are beginning to question the wisdom, and even the Christian propriety, of our government’s proposed new initiative in our ongoing (though as yet undeclared) war against Iraq. More and more Christians are beginning to wonder whether going to war is ever an appropriate Christian response. Some of us are waking up -- the trick now is not to drift back to sleep.

Sometimes events serve to shake us awake. The ongoing mess in the Catholic church has done so for many of us. There was a time when I believed that the church was nearly perfect and always had been. Like so many Catholics, I knew next to nothing about church history, and even thought that the Second Vatican Council was mostly about celebrating Mass in English. Now I’m awake. The trick is not to drift back to sleep.

Advent doesn’t have much to recommend it if it’s nothing more than passively waiting for Christmas. Christmas will be here soon enough. It’s already here at the mall. We don’t need another lesson in waiting. Patience is fine if you’re baking bread or helping a child learn to walk. It won’t do if you’re trying to save the world. What you need then is to get awake, and to stay awake. To stay awake, you have to be engaged, you have to pay attention, and you have to be smart. Like Joshua. Like Jesus.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, November 29, 2002