Few of us would be able to recollect from our childhoods the moment when self-consciousness first came into being and the process of waking to self began. For most of us, awareness broke through in pieces. We found ourselves then as we continue to find ourselves now: at times stirringly wakeful to what it means to be human, aware of self and lifetime, and startled by the abruptness of its end. Essayist Annie Dillard articulates the progression of consciousness with stirring lucidity:
“I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again.”(1)
Dillard describes the rousing of self as strangely recognizable— "like people brought back from cardiac arrest or drowning." There is a familiarity in the midst of the foreignness. We wake to mystery, but so somehow we wake to something known.
We find ourselves jarred awake in a different way to the idea of death, this unsettling notion of forever falling asleep to the life we have known. But even here there is a curious sense of vigilance we carry with us into death. Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno once observed that human beings are distinguished from other creatures in that we have the unique practice of burying our dead. In our funeral preparations, we make the dead ready for another stage; we make ourselves ready to continue on, our eyes further open to the weight of life. We stand ceremoniously present; we speak words over the dead body. Professor James Loder points out the rebellion inherent in these preparations: “We will not let death have the last word. This is a mark of the human spirit that something in us knows we can overcome this thing.”(2)
Into this mysterious world of life and death, the Christian voice calls the world to the wakeful awareness of this spirit, to the story reaching beyond self, beyond our lifetimes and our deaths, speaking words where death stings and tears flow: “The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken…They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call… when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door” (Matthew 24:29-33).
When Jesus appeared on the scene of a people who had lived with God’s silence for hundreds of years, there were some who were ready and alert and others who had fallen asleep to the possibility of a God who speaks. The story of Christ’s coming, the Incarnation of hope and light, is a reminder that wakefulness is a worthy posture. The one who invites us to “come and see” has come near enough to show us for himself. Like children waking to consciousness, what if something in us knows that Christ is near, right at the door, longing to show us even now. It is worth being found awake, ready for something new and something we have known all along. For the Christian, this mystery is our consciousness. Christ has come. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.(1) Annie Dillard, An American Childhood (New York: Harper Collins, 1988), 11.
(2) James E. Loder, The Logic of the Spirit (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998), 4.
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