Did you get the alert? Did you hear the mind-boggling scientific news released in October?
As the report goes, weeks earlier some scientists got the alert that a satellite had detected a gamma ray burst. Two stars—larger than our sun—swirled around each other a thousand times a second. Until they collided. They then radiated waves and a torrent of electromagnetic radiation.
Anyway, the scientists hit the roof. They said it felt like Christmas. They hooted and cheered. They alerted other astronomers to get their eyes into telescopes to witness the burst in a galaxy just 130 million light years away—quite close for us! This “universe shaking announcement” as it was called, allowed scientists to collect a huge amount of data regarding neutron stars—which are the most extreme nuclear physics environments in the universe today. If someone could unpack that scientific language for me later, please do! Anyway, scientists believe that all our precious metals—gold, silver and platinum were produced in collisions just like this one. From this observation, scientists can now measure the expansion of the universe in a new way.
The gospel writer Mark shares universe-shaking news in today’s gospel. At Christ’s coming the powers of the heavens will be shaken. The sun and moon will be darkened. Stars will fall from heaven. Cosmic and cataclysmic, the apocalyptic alert is not meant to frighten and scare us, but to wake us up to the urgency of the gospel message. Don’t sleep through life and miss what it is all about
For Mark, though, the death of Christ was the universe-shaking event of all time. Images in today’s gospel appear in the passion narrative. The disciples fall asleep in the garden of Gethsemane though Jesus pleads with them to stay alert and awake. At Jesus’ death, darkness covers the land and the curtain of the temple is torn in two. Though forsaken on the cross, Jesus is revealed as the Son of God.
But there’s more cosmic stuff in our texts today. Amid exile and suffering, you can imagine the ancient Israelites looking up at the stars, and pleading with God: Come and save us! Tear open the heavens and come down, is what the text in Isaiah says. With no scientific understanding of the universe, the people thought of the sky as a plastic-like covering over the earth. They pleaded—they alerted God—if you will, to break the skin of firmament. Like an animal tearing open a cage. That is how desperately they longed for hope.
Today we get an Advent alert that Christ is coming. Unfortunately, we often go into the past and pretend that we are waiting for Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. Or get to a distant future and wonder what the second coming has to do with us today. Rather, think of the Advent wake-up call as the universe-shaking news that the reign of God is coming among us. Here and now.
But there are so many alerts we get these days, making it nearly impossible to discern what is important and what is not. And talk about urgency! Douglas Rushkoff has written a book called Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. He writes that the future we have been waiting for is now, but we don’t have any time to live it. Rather we face an always-on, live-streamed reality that our human minds and bodies seem unable to inhabit. No wonder we are over-worked, over-tired, over-stressed.
Rushkoff talks about the alerts of our digital universe always pinging and ringing with the latest news, stock quotes, email responses, texts, Facebook updates, Tweets and more. He suggests they come at us with urgency like happened when Walter Cronkite interrupted programming in 1963 with news that Kennedy was shot. Now everything comes at us with that intensity. And you wonder how much we can handle.
In fact, doesn’t it seem that we are always on high alert, wondering what attack, dangerous event, or other bad news we will hear? Is anybody listening or reading the news expecting to hear of hope for these dark days?
And speaking of dark days, who needs to be reminded of the decreasing light and how that affects people. Our gospel calls us to be awake and vigilant, but many of us would rather stay in bed. And then many more of us have trouble sleeping. It’s hard to be alert when you feel lethargic or overwhelmed by the December madness and the barrage of commercials alerting us to define this season by what we buy.
Did you get the Advent alert? Keep awake. You do not know the day or hour when Christ will come.
Hear those words not as shaming amid the busy and bustle of the season. Amid the procrastination. Amid feelings of loss, grief, depression and just feeling blue when it seems everyone else is in the holiday spirit.
Instead, hear the words as gift. Be alert. Life is short. Two of our community died this past week: one after a long journey with Alzheimer’s and the other from a random accident. As our Wednesday study group remembered these two remarkable women and the particularity of their very different deaths, one person exclaimed with such passion: every single day is a gift.
So today amid all the alerts, all the endless holiday commercials; everything on our to-do lists, all coming at us like arrows . . . we gather in community, alert and watchful for Christ to come, to come among us in this place and time. Even if we have no idea how to live alert and awake, we remember God’s faithfulness in the past as we walk boldly into the future, one day at a time.
So we dip our hands in the water. We light candles on the wreath. We gather amid bare branches and blue, the color of the dark sky, the color of hope. We hear universe-changing texts. We share again bread and wine. And we know that these are the sacred alerts, the spiritual notifications that put our hearts at rest.