What I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.Mark 13:37
When you think of the word, “soul,” what comes to mind? I don’t mean “soul food,” or “soul music,” or even the new Pixar movie, “Soul.” But the soul within us that has been created by God. I want to invite you to think with me about our souls today, as we begin this new church year. And I want to start with a wonderful quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who laments that in our modern world, something like the soul has become nothing more than a memory:
Like a song from old times, like a medieval image painted on gold leaf, like the memory of childhood days, the sound of the wonderful word of the soul has grown foreign to us. If there is still in our day—in the age of machines, of economic battles, of the reign of fashion and sports—something like the soul, then it’s not just a dear childhood memory like so many others.
We really don’t talk about the soul very much any more, and that is a shame. Because the soul is that part of us that connects us to God. And when we neglect it, our lives of faith suffer. And our modern world very much neglects it.
I still remember the first time I came across Thomas Moore’s best-selling book, “The Care of the Soul.” It was in the early 1990’s, before I went to seminary, and the introduction spoke to me so powerfully then. It still does, more than 25 years later. Here is what he wrote:
The great malady of the twentieth century, implicated in all of our troubles and affecting us individually and socially, is ‘loss of soul.’ When soul is neglected, it doesn’t just go away; it appears symptomatically in obsessions, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning. Our temptation is to isolate these symptoms or to try to eradicate them one by one; but the root problem is that we have lost our wisdom about the soul, even our interest in it.
To me, this is still the great malady. The great malady of our time is not COVID-19, as terrible and as life-changing as that has been. The great malady of our time is the loss of soul, the neglect of our soul. And we are seeing its effects all around us. Obsessions, as Thomas Moore writes, addictions, violence, and loss of meaning, to name just a few of these effects.
So today, as we begin this season of Advent and this new church year, I want to invite us to pay attention once again to our souls. To care for our souls. And to find new life and meaning by doing so.
What are we to say about the soul? Here is how Bonhoeffer answers that:
The soul “is the life that God has given us; it is what God has loved about us, what he—from his eternity—has touched. It is love in us and longing and holy restlessness and responsibility and happiness and pain; it is divine breath breathed into mortal being. Human being, you have a soul!”
We have souls. We have been touched by eternity. Brought into a relationship with our God that is like no other. And caring for this relationship is vital to our spiritual health.
Our soul is the key to our spiritual life, to our life with God; and it is what our world is neglecting more and more. And Advent, the beginning of our church year, is a time to do something about it.
The Advent of a New Church Year
When you think about it, this is a strange time to begin our church year. Our church year could begin at Christmas, with Jesus’ birth. Or, perhaps, at Easter, with the first day of the new creation. Or even at Pentecost, with the birth of the church. But it begins now. Why?
I believe that our church year begins now to remind us to wake up our souls, and to prepare for the coming of Jesus. If our souls are not awake, then Christmas is just about family and gifts. Easter is just about candy and pictures. Pentecost? It’s just another Sunday. We miss it all if our souls are asleep; so Advent invites them to wake up. We start our church year by waking up our souls, and getting ready for the coming of the Lord. To quote Bonhoeffer one last time:
Hey, you! Human being! You have a soul! See that you don’t lose it, that you don’t wake up one day from the frenzy of life—professional and private life—and see that you have become hollow inside, a plaything of events, a leaf driven back and forth and blown away by the wind: that you are without a soul. Human being, pay attention to your soul!
This is so important to do, and so easy to neglect. The frenzy of life affects us all. And if we’re not careful, we can become hollow inside, a plaything of events, a leaf blown about by the events of the day. We have souls. And we should pay attention to them. But how?
The Son of Man Will Come Again
The first way is fairly simple, even obvious, but often neglected. But it is one that Jesus taught us over and over again, including in today’s gospel reading (Mark 13:24-37). We can pay attention to our souls simply by remembering that Jesus will come again. The Son of Man will come again, with great power and glory, as Jesus puts it in this gospel reading.
It is easy to forget this. After all, it’s been two thousand years. What are the odds that he is going to come today, or even in our lifetime? No one knows the odds. As Jesus himself says, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” We don’t know when it will be. But it could be today. It could be tomorrow. And living as though that is possible changes the way we live. It keeps our souls awake, and vigilant. It rearranges our priorities. It helps us to pay attention to what God is doing in our lives and in this world. We should live as though Jesus is coming again, perhaps even today.
Another way to think about this, though, is to remember that we will all see Jesus one day. If he doesn’t come before we die, we will see him that day for sure. And that day isn’t 2,000 years away. In fact, it really won’t be that long from now, in the grand of schemes. There might be signs it is nearing. There might not. But it will happen, to me and to you and to us all. We will see Jesus soon. If not today, then soon. Listen to how the Letter of James puts it:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a town and spend a year there, doing business and making money.” Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wishes, we will live and do this or that.”James 4:13-15
We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. Our life is a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. And this should inspire us to live every day as if it’s our last. To always be ready to meet our Lord face-to-face. And when we do that, we are paying attention to our souls.
We Are the Clay
Of course, it can be quite intimidating to think that we need to get ready to meet Jesus. How is that even possible? How can we get ourselves ready? Well, maybe we can’t. Not ourselves. Not on our own. But we can remember what Isaiah tells us in our first reading:
“O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”Isaiah 64:8
Sometimes, all that we have to do to get ready is to be the clay. To let the Lord work on us, and work with us. We don’t have to figure it all out, or do it all ourselves. We simply offer ourselves to God, as clay offers itself to the potter. And we trust God to form us, to make us and re-shape us, and to use all the events of our lives to strengthen our souls. All things can work together for good, scripture reminds us. Sometimes, we just have to let it. Let God strengthen our souls as we go through this life.
And one more thing to do to pay attention to our souls: The last words that Jesus shares with us in today’s gospel reading. Keep awake. Beware, he says, keep alert, keep awake. It is all-too-easy to fall asleep, spiritually. To get so focused on our life in this world that we simply forget there is more. To neglect our souls, until they simply drift off to sleep.
Advent is a season that serves to remind us there is more. It is a season to encourage us not to lose sight of what God is doing in this world, and in our lives; and what God promises yet to do. It is a time to open our eyes, and stay awake.
Jesus will come again, one way or another. Whether when he returns to this earth, or we close our eyes in death. So we should get ready for him, by paying attention to our souls. We should let ourselves be clay in our heavenly Father’s hands. And we should stay awake to all that God is doing in our lives and in this world. The best is yet to come. So let’s not fall asleep and miss it. Amen