When I asked Yn. Anna what she wanted for Christmas this year, she said ‘sleep.’ Sadly, this past week, Santa did not deliver for Anna. You see, at this point in our lives, there are just many more ways not to sleep than to sleep. First of course are the kids. Between bad dreams, coughs and colds, nursing and teething, every night is some form of interrupted sleep. Well this is just a season of life that will pass. But there is a more structural problem of sleep deprivation and lack of rest which affects us all more and more in our society. Nowadays, the boundaries in time and space of ‘on-time’ and ‘off-time’ are getting more and more blurred. Our work, our bills, our finances and customer complaints are not left at the office; they are always with us, in our smart phone-at our fingertips. Actually, not even at our fingertips, they’re right beside us in bed. Roll to the right and you may find your spouse, roll to the left and there is your smart phone! It seems that we are now married to both, day and night, sickness and health till death do us part!
Now don’t get me wrong, I do of course believe that we are ultimately in control of our technology as well as our rest and sleep, but it can be a great struggle, and frankly we aren’t always in control. I can give you three examples in the past three weeks of my technology alerting me to wakefulness against my will. At 3AM one night, Kavazan, the phone app for priests, woke me up with a question about Armenian font lettering. This week, our Christmas tree lights came on from 2-4 AM because of a crazy digital timer. And for several nights, for reasons still unknown, our smart TV just turns itself on randomly in the middle of the night!
It’s so ridiculous and frustrating that you have to laugh, but our lack of sleep is no laughing matter. The centers of disease control have found that 1 and 3 adults do not get enough sleep regularly, which is associated with increased risk of a variety of diseases; from obesity to heart disease, to mental distress. And getting enough rest is not just a personal health problem, it is actually a commandment of God, and therefore a spiritual problem. Taking Sabbath rest is the fourth commandment. Can you think of any other commandment, by the way, that is more neglected? We take God seriously that we shouldn’t lie, steal or kill people, but we treat getting rest as a friendly suggestion? Well it’s not just a suggestion, it appears to be essential to living a good life as we were designed. And as is often the case, our church calendar, and the rhythms of nature it is rooted in, provides us valuable insight and encouragement to attend to this most neglected aspect of our physical, emotional and spiritual health.
If we put aside the glowing alerts of our devices, the church calendar reminds us that today we complete Advent, a season of darkness, of rest, and peaceful endings. Not coincidentally, it begins in mid-November and ends today, as the hours of daylight have gotten shorter and shorter and the hours of night have gotten longer and longer. Also not coincidentally, Advent comes to an end as the year before us comes to an end. Our sacred calendar, and the rhythms of God’s creation in which it is rooted, remind us of deep wisdom which our technology drives us to forget. All good beginnings, come from good endings. And good endings, be they endings of the day, of the year, or of life itself-necessitate darkness, sleep and rest, because where we end, there God begins.
We desperately need the day’s work, meetings, problems and plans to end in darkness, in Sabbath sleep, in order to trust daily that where our efforts end, God begins. We desperately need to finish off all the work of the past year, in darkness and rest, as God designed it. Just as all nature’s produce of the year, ends in the darkness and rest of Winter, all the produce of our year-whether you’re a lawyer producing words, an investor producing profits or a parent producing kids-should end in rest, quiet and perspective. A time to give thanks for sure, but also a time to sit with disappointments, darkness and losses; because only where we end, can God begin.
The embracing of darkness and rest is really the heart of all ancient Advent and Christmas traditions. Darkness is not something we flee, it is something we decorate, with an evergreen tree and candles foretelling the light and life of Christmas and a New Year to come (Alexander Shaia). Rest is not something we avoid by staying connected 24×7 with every device, alarm and notification. Rest is something that helps us know ourselves and our Creator God, who Himself rested and commands us to rest, so that our lives would be whole, healthy and blessed.
Every day the long, still nights of the Advent and Christmas season presents us with mysterious gifts. Can we turn off our notifications and unplug from our routines long enough to discover the gifts of darkness, peace and rest? Even our sorrows and disappointments can be our teachers. They help us to do our best, then surrender the results to God in rest. I pray that in the dark and quiet end of 2018, we turn off the light of our devices and attachments long enough to discern the gentle light of God’s grace. And by decorating the darkness with the light of Christ, we might better see the gift of each new day in the new year ahead, now and always, amen.