As in The Matrix, when the world is viewed through the blue lens of Advent, nothing is quite what it seems.
Welcome to a new time zone. Welcome to a brand new liturgical year.
I used to apologize for my love of the liturgical calendar by couching it in self-deprecating jokes about nerdiness. But I stopped doing that quite a few years ago when I noticed that the liturgical year is nothing more than the stories of our lives wrapped in the story of Jesus — or maybe, the story of Jesus wrapped in our own lives and experience.
That’s more like it.
Because these days, it looks more like young people — people of all ages, really — are searching for something to live our lives by, to wrap our whole identity in. People of all stripes try to do it with all kinds of things, some productive, some less so, and some downright violent.
Some of us do it with something as trivial as sports or something as serious as politics or religion, even fundamentalist religion. Hate is being lived out on Internet message boards and classrooms and Hollywood and the government in the form of things like white supremacy, anti-semitism, and sexual harassment, and young men of a bunch of different stripes have gotten particularly violent lately, using guns to kill or, when necessary, weaponizing vehicles.
We talk a lot these days about both white supremacy and fundamentalist religion — particularly, these days, Islam. Why, we wonder, would promising young men become Nazis, or, alternatively, leave their lives here to go off to Syria to fight for ISIS, or, in either case, commit violence at home?
The answer is as simple as it is complex: they need a story to tell them who they are.
Both white supremacy and radical religion situate these young men into a story that gives them an identity. A purpose. A connection to something older and bigger than them.
The truth is, we all need such a story, and up to this point, we’ve gotten it from religion or national pride or our families for centuries. But with the beginning of the internet, things have gone from local to cosmic. We now have unlimited stories with which to identify.
The good news is that today, Advent has gone cosmic, too.
The first Sunday of Advent isn’t about a baby in a manger. It’s far bigger than that.
On the first Sunday of Advent, stars fall and the very universe turns.
Today, Jesus calls us to keep awake, to keep alert, because things are about to change. The whole world is about to turn.
We all need a story to tell us where we came from and who we are. And today, Jesus reaches through history to hand us a narrative that we can situate our lives in that will actually make the world better instead of making it bleed.
And Jesus calls to us: keep awake! Keep your eyes open!
Various groups tied somehow to the extremes of the political spectrum have adopted the idea of the “red pill” from another cultural story, the early 2000s movie The Matrix. In The Matrix, the main character is offered a red pill and a blue pill by a character who has just revealed that humanity is actually enslaved by technology and that everything he has ever seen his whole life is a lie — an illusion of this complex computer system. If the main character takes the blue pill, he will wake up and everything will go back to normal and he can pretend that he doesn’t know the truth of humanity’s enslavement.
If he takes the red pill, everything will change, and he will begin to fight the technology that has enslaved humanity.
These days, political extremists with various pet causes have used “taking the red pill” or “red pilling” to describe “waking up” to a vast conspiracy to deceive them their whole lives by some target: the news media, the larger culture, whatever. Those who “take the red pill” feel liberated to spew their unfiltered anger all over the Internet and into the streets in violence. If you can’t tell, I think it’s as ridiculous as it is serious. It’s inventing a story in order to make yourself the hero.
I’m here today to advocate for the Blue pill. The Advent Blue pill, specifically.
This is not your average Matrix blue pill, the kind that keeps you safely unaware. Advent calls us to a different kind of waking up. It places us in a different kind of story.
This Blue pill is quite different from the one in The Matrix because we are, in reality, probably not enslaved by evil robots or a vast web of conspiracy to deceive and control us. We just like to imagine these scenarios because they make us feel powerful and in control and smarter than other people.
We really, really like to be the heroes of our own stories.
The likely truth is that we’re far more deceived and enslaved by our own brokenness and rage than any outside conspiratorial web of deception.
The reality is that the world is just full of scared, angry people without a unifying story to attach ourselves to and give us purpose and identity. We’re swimming; we’ve forgotten who we are and what we’re for.
And so in order to give ourselves that sense of purpose, we wrap ourselves in an identity and imagine a perceived conflict with some other group, be it a political one, a religious one, or an entire race or gender of humanity.
Like in George Orwell’s 1984, nothing unifies us quite like a common enemy.
So there must, therefore, always be an enemy.
Someone to hate. Someone to blame.
The reality is that we’re not fighting each other nearly as hard as we’re fighting ourselves. While you’re more likely to drown in your bathtub than to die in a terrorist attack, but you are 100% guaranteed to contend with your own pain and rage every single day.
Waking up to that reality is a lot harder than “taking the red pill” with its delicious delusions of conflict and self-heroism.
So this Advent, take the Advent blue pill.
Contrary to popular belief, the blue pill, at least in the context of Advent, is less about staying inoculated to reality and more about waking up to the fact that you’re not the hero.
The refrain “keep awake” echoes several times in our Gospel lesson as Jesus begins the Advent season as he always does: by describing a cosmic end and beginning of everything where there is a reckoning. Where the violent are dealt with and peace reigns eternal in ways that humans with our fallibilities are absolutely incapable of bringing about. Advent blue is the color of the coming dawn, a story where we are not the heroes, but the rescued.
Let me tell you about when I first understood Advent.
I worked in a homeless shelter just outside of Atlanta my first year of seminary. While I worked there, I saw beautiful and horrible things, but mostly, I was just constantly overwhelmed at the pain I saw, the complex people, the complex situations.
No matter how much work we did, things never really got better. In fact, this was in 2008, when the financial crisis was just beginning to hit. It didn’t get better. It got worse. There were more failures than successes, more pain than joy.
As a classmate of mine told me, my eyes had been torn open and I was unable to close them. The world felt out of control. And it made me angry: angry at elected officials, at rich people, at almost everyone.
And I sat in our seminary’s Advent 1 service as the choir sang a haunting version of “O Come O Come Emmanuel” to a still and darkened chapel with a single Advent candle burning and the altar bare.
Slowly, the lights came up as two of my classmates ceremoniously carried in the paraments, then the altar cloth, then the elements, as out of nowhere, greens were hung around the chapel and the space was transformed into a place of hope, strung with pine greenery and Advent blue paraments.
And I realized that I, too, had a choice. I could choose to be angry and to blame the pain that I felt and the pain that I saw on people whom I could then hate and fight. I could wrap myself in short-lived stories of political warfare. I could blame the homeless people that I was serving and be angry at them, or I could rage tirelessly against the political parties and entities that refused to serve the poor. I could be angry at those who had too much while others starved.
I could, before it was even cool, take the red pill, waking up to a story where I was the angry social justice hero, out to save the world — and fail, which would only make me angrier.
But as O Come O Come Emmanuel echoed off the rafters of the chapel that day, I realized that the only way that I was ever really going to be able to make it through this life with open eyes was not through anger, but through letting go of trying to control the future. This would allow me to simply do the most good that I could, trusting that peace is coming and God is coming and that no one can stop it any more than they can stop the sun from coming up.
Advent blue, after all, is the story of the coming dawn.
We are not the heroes. We are all the rescued.
This was actually keeping awake: by wrapping myself and my life in a story and in Jesus, whose words will never pass away, even if heaven and earth do. I took the Advent blue pill.
Don’t get me wrong. I still get frustrated at the state of things. But my life is not wrapped in an existential political struggle, but in the story of Jesus, lived each and every year through this story that we tell with our voices and our resources and our bodies.
So I invite you, therefore, to take the Blue pill.
Because Advent is blue because it reflects the sky just before dawn. The Advent blue pill, as opposed to the one in The Matrix, doesn’t call us to stay ignorant. To the contrary: it calls us, urgently, to keep awake.
Rather than framing the entire story around us, Advent tells us of a future where it’s something — someone — much bigger than us that tears open the heavens and changes the world.
In our world torn by pain and division, we’re all, in some way, afraid. We look at the pain and problems all around us and we wonder “how long?” How long will people in our own country and around the world have to live in fear in their communities, in their schools, and in their own homes? How long will we live at odds with our neighbors and endure division in our families? How long will people have to endure violence and hunger and pain, right up to our own doorstep?
In our lowest points, we are tempted to wonder if things will be this way forever. We give ourselves over to despair and anger. But as Episcopal priest and author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “a blessing will do more to improve the air quality.” (1)
This season that we begin today — Advent — has a deep and abiding presence with the weight of the air just before dawn and calls us to look deeper. It whispers to us, urgently, as winter grips the land: “Keep awake!”
Because we know, deep in our bones: it is dark and cold now, but it will not be winter forever.
Advent’s is a call of urgency and longing, but also a call of promise: there is hope. Things will not always be as they are. Something is coming to us that’s bigger than any group we can affiliate ourselves with.
Like our ancestors before us, we wait in darkness, knowing that we cannot know the specifics. We can only stay ready for what we know is coming — opportunity. Victory. Hope.
Peace on earth.
Advent whispers to us: the night is long and difficult, but the dawn is coming.
“And what I say to you I say to all — keep awake!” (Mark 13:37) Amen.
1. Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, p. 204.