It is Saturday evening of the Easter vigil, and our small church is gathered together in Lydia’s house to pray and watch for the dawn when we will celebrate our Lord being raised from death.
The room is quiet with the small rustling of people adjusting their mats and cushions and occasional sighs. Earlier we listened as the gospel story was told. Most of us know most of the stories well, and can tell them too, but each year this is a special time for our church. Each year as we remember all our Lord taught, and how he was betrayed, suffered for love, died and was raised to new life, each year we wonder how long it will be before he comes again.
Each year we wonder if this may be the last.
Each year we watch and pray together, meditating on the words we have heard.
I breathe in deeply and let the breath out in a whiffly sigh. Moments later, I become aware of a warm hand gently patting my cheek. Warm breath over my ear.
‘Wake up, Grandfather.’
I cannot help the smile that comes to my lips, and slowly I open my eyes.
‘Was I asleep then, Gabriel?’
I glance over at his earnest face.
‘Are you certain?’
Doubt flashes in his eyes and he frowns a little.
‘Yes. I think so. You sort of snored’
I can see that he thinks this is almost amusing. But even though we are whispering quietly heads are beginning to lift. We are disturbing the silence. In the candle light I spot his sister Hannah’s face turned fully toward us, her expression a blend of concern, disapproval and curiosity.
This is not usually a night for conversation, but for reflection and prayer. Nevertheless, I nod to Gabriel and he stands, offering me his hand to help me up. Together we walk carefully to the door and step out into the night.
Hannah follows, her curiosity winning out.
The once full moon lights our way as we walk, but we don’t go far. Dawn is only an hour or two away, and we will return soon to pray with our sisters and brothers in Christ.
This is Gabriel’s first vigil, and he will be baptised as part of our celebrations in the morning. I know he is excited and nervous.
My heart swells with love and pride as I look at him, my daughter’s boy.
‘So, I was asleep, eh?’
‘Mmm. But that’s understandable, Grandfather. You are very old.’
‘Ah, perhaps. Although that would be disappointing, for in fact I was meditating on the words in the story about staying awake. They caught at me and I have been wondering…. the Master said “keep awake- for you do not know when he will come. Keep awake, or he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly.”
Gabriel nods, and I can see he is turning it over. thinking it through.
‘How, though, Grandfather? How can we always keep awake, just in case? How can we live always awake?’
‘The same way we pray without ceasing?’ Hannah asks, ‘like Paul says in the copy we have of his letter to the church in Thessalonica.’
I nod to her, watch her bloom a little with the affirmation, and then turn back to her brother.
‘Yes, I think so, this is part of it perhaps. What are we watching for this night, Gabriel?’
I am half expecting a rehearsed response, as I know he has had to answer the elders many times about this in his preparation for baptism. But he has his own words and they come freely.
‘We are grieving for the suffering and death of the Lord, for our part in the brokenness of creation and we are remembering the pain of being separated from God’s love.’
‘Separated?’ Hannah, nearly two years older and baptised last year cannot help quizzing her little brother, but her tone is gentle. She wants him to find his way to the spaciousness of God’s love and grace. Gabriel does not bristle.
‘Because we choose to go our own way.’
‘But God leaves us to wander off on our own path?’ she persists.
‘Yes. No! Yes – God lets us; no – God doesn’t leave us.’
‘So how are we separated?’
Gabriel is silent and thoughtful a moment, as if he is feeling his way into what he wants to say.
‘It feels like separation, until you turn back, and then you realise God never left you.’
I look at them both. ‘And does this help you know how to stay awake?’
‘Should it?’ Gabriel frowns, but now Hannah has caught hold of the thread and is following it.
‘So we can feel like we’ve wandered off, or fallen asleep, but God is always with us, awake and attentive?’
I smile at her. ‘Perhaps. Say some more.’
She goes on. ‘Is it like the Song, where the bride says, “I sleep, but my heart is awake”?
‘Ah! I think you may have something there…’
‘She is always thinking of the bridegroom, dreaming of him in her sleep, so some part of her is awake – some part of her is longing for him always’.
I look at Hannah. She seems so young to me, and it is too dark to see if she is blushing. Probably. But she is old enough to have some idea of what this feels like. Gabriel though, at thirteen, looks less convinced.
‘That is part of it, I think. Keep awake in your heart, in your yearning and longing for our Lord. But there is more, too. It’s to do with the difference between the bride and bridegroom, and the husband and wife.
This love we know – the love of God in Christ, through the Spirit – we feel it when we pray or worship together, when we are visiting with the prisoners, when we meet with brothers and sisters and offer hospitality.’
Both of them are nodding in agreement, so I go on.
‘But what about when you are fetching water, Hannah? What about when you are carrying wood, Gabriel? Do you feel God’s love surrounding you? Do you see the face of Christ in the others who are fetching water, doing other chores, out in the marketplace?’
They look at me blankly.
‘Should I feel God’s love then?’ Gabriel worries.
‘Not should, my boy. Never should when it comes to the Lord of Love. Love cannot be forced – you know this. But you could. You can – if you keep awake to love. You can “at all times and in all places” know that the Master is home in you, that Love is awake in you and that you are never separated from this Love.
It is the same Love that holds us in this life now, and will always hold us. Keep your heart awake to love, and let the Lord of Love always be at home in your heart. I believe this is what the Master means. We watch and wait for the fullness of his presence, his kingdom here among us and in us. And at the same time he is already here, he is already risen, he is always with us. There is tension – but the tension helps to keep us awake, longing and looking even as we delight in his presence in us and among us. Do you see?’
Gabriel looks away, considering, while Hannah holds my gaze evenly.
‘I sleep, but my heart is awake’ she murmurs.
Gabriel nods, as if he has reached a conclusion.
‘Keep awake because you do not know when the Master will return…and the longing to see him and be with him is what keeps us awake, as well as the presence of him living in us, guiding and growing us to be more like him. Every moment the Lord gives us breath is a moment we are alive in Christ, is a moment we are alive to the Spirit of Christ in each other.’
‘Amen and amen!’
I put my arms around their shoulders and turn us back to the house.
‘Come children, let us return to our silent Easter vigil with our hearts awake to Love.’