Keep Watch

“Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.” Matthew 24:42

Advent begins with Jesus’ apocalyptic call to “keep watch,” or “be alert.” Read the signs of the times. In the midst of the ordinary, something is about to happen. There will be an unveiling (the meaning of the Greek word “apocalypsis”) that will reveal a truth contrary to the current powers that be.

I know hospitality can become humdrum. My ability to discern and recognize the presence of Christ in the people who come to Manna House for coffee, socks and hygiene, and showers can be obscured by the power of routine. I find there is a rhythm of people and services offered that make most mornings at Manna House quite ordinary.

So, this morning, as I typically do, at 8am I went out to the front porch and invited guests and volunteers to join in prayer. Like we do every morning we are open, we formed a circle and reached out to hold each other’s hands. But as I began to lead this ordinary time of prayer, a guest standing near the gate shouted out, “Please pray for our friend Michelle who died.”

I felt the greyness of the skies darken. The cold wind seemed to blow hard and chill more deeply. The bleakness of the morning took on greater intensity. The power of death appeared unchallenged. Another guest struck down, crucified by the streets.

So, we prayed. We prayed that Michelle be welcomed into the presence of God, into love, warmth, home. And we prayed that God would take away the bitterness of life.

Then we went inside. Nothing out of the ordinary. The house was warm. Coffee was served. Setting up people for showers, and the offering of “socks and hygiene” began.

Minutes later a guest erupted in anger when he was told he could not shower at Manna House today. He had been ugly toward volunteers the last time he showered. As he left he hurled words of accusation about our failure to be what we say we are. This was not the first time for such anger and such words. And it certainly will not be the last.

After he left, the conversations among guests that had fallen silent resumed. So, too, did the usual banter of offering showers and socks and hygiene. Guests came in when their names were called, and volunteers ably served them. The rest of the morning proceeded without incident, as is usually the case.

What then on such a morning am I supposed to be alert to, to keep watch for? Did the Lord come in the death of Michelle? Had the Lord come in the anger of the guest turned away? Was the Lord in the sorrow of the man who had called for prayers for Michelle? Was the Lord in those drinking coffee and taking showers? What was being unveiled, revealed, on this morning?

I really do not know. Advent tells me to enter into a time to sit with both the presence of darkness and the promise of light. This is not a time to force answers or glibly find meaning in suffering and the hardness of life. Advent is a time of liminality, (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”). In this liminal time there is ambiguity and disorientation. What once was is no longer certain, and what will be has not yet emerged. I need to keep watch in the twilight of Advent. Here is my Advent commitment, like the psalmist, I need to “wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning” (Psalm 130:6).

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