You know the time. It is now the hour to for you to wake from sleep. These are the words that Paul addresses to the Romans in today’s second reading. But what does he mean? In what way are we asleep, and what is that from which Paul wishes to awaken us?
There was a small iron-working town in Pennsylvania that kept its mills running day and night. Huge metal hammers, each weighing several tons, were constantly beating out masses of molten metal. The sound of this activity echoed all night through the town, but the people in that place had become accustomed to the noise and were easily able to sleep through it. Then one night, the machinery broke, and the hammers stopped. Within minutes, the entire town was up. They had been awakened by the silence.
Perhaps when Paul talks about sleep, he is talking about the constant drone of the machinery of our lives, the patterns of work and responsibility that never stop, the ongoing activity with which we fill up each day can often exhaust us. What Paul is telling us is that we need some silence to wake us up from this continual noise.
The season of Advent provides that silence, a quiet break from all our busyness, a pause from which we can take stock in the quality of our lives. And if we were to avail ourselves of the silence of Advent, what would it tell us to do? An easy answer is that Advent would tell us to do less, to take out our calendars and strike off a few things so that we would have more time for reflection and prayer. There’s nothing wrong with that answer, but it is not the only possibility. Advent might not be telling us to do less. It might be calling us to do differently.
Duke University finished a study of burn-out among professionals. What they found is that burn-out was not caused by people doing too much. It was caused by people doing too much of what was meaningless and unimportant. Burn-out occurred when people constantly encountered the trivial and the inconsequential. So perhaps Advent is not directing us to do less but inviting us to do more to bring meaning into our lives.
As we gear up for the holidays, instead of just throwing ourselves into the continual patterns and customs that we have done in the past, Advent might ask how we can increase the meaning of our celebrations. Could we ask people who are coming for dinner to bring with them a small donation to a charity of their choice, and encourage them to share why they chose that particular contribution? Could we ask people seated around our Christmas dinner to share what was the best Christmas gift they ever received and did that gift make them a better person? If we could add such conversations to our holidays, would we not increase the meaning of the season and make our dinners more than simply getting together and passing the potatoes?
We have a lot to do at work. Our plate is always full. But what if we added to our day a conversation with a co-worker who is struggling. Would not the listening and the affirmation of that meeting deepen the significance of our day, making it more important than simply attending meetings and answering e-mails? We all have gifts to buy, cards to write, but what if we added to our list a visit to our neighbor who just lost her husband or some time with a friend who just came out of the hospital? Would not that addition deepen our experience of the holidays and bring us closer to the true meaning of what we celebrate in Jesus’ birth?
If we let ourselves simply run along through all the routines and customs of these upcoming days, our lives might become shallow and empty. This is why Advent provides us with a silence that can change those hollow patterns. It might be the choice to do less or to do more of what is meaningful. The choice is ours. And it is important, because you know the time. It is now the hour for us to wake from sleep.