"Sleeping is Giving In": A Very Special Arcade Fire Advent Reflection (Part 2)

But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”
+++Ephesians 5:13-14 (ESV)

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. 

+++Romans 13:11-12 (ESV)

The Scripture readings during the season of Advent typically focus on two people who integral in readying the earth for the coming of Christ: Mary, his mother and John the Baptist, his cousin. Much can and has been said on both these people, but for now were are going to focus in a bit on the place John the Baptist has as a forerunner to the coming of the world's Savior.

There is this prophecy that first appears in the book of Isaiah, chapter 40, a prophecy that finds its fulfillment in the Gospel of Mark with John the Baptist. 
It says: 
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

And then it goes on to describe exactly what John the Baptist did--for starters, he baptized! And it was a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. In other words he was baptizing people, making them clean both inside and outside. He was the key agent of a move of God where people were turning from their sins and drawing close to God. And not only this, but he was pointing the way to the Coming One, who will baptize them not with water but with the Holy Spirit. He was crying in the wilderness, both a literal a figurative wilderness, and preparing the way of the Lord. He was making a path—a straight one—so that people could get to God. He was readying the soil so that a massive crop could be planted and then harvested. For reasons we don’t quite understand John was getting the earth ready for Jesus.

The prophecy came hundreds of years earlier and was fulfilled through John. John was and in fact became the one whom the prophecy spoke of.

Now, in the Gospel of Mark after the prophecy about the one who will prepare the way of the Lord is recalled, what we DON'T hear is this:
“And then John, knowing he was the chosen one, sat down and waited for the Messiah to appear. He sat and sat and waited and did nothing, saying “I KNOW I’m the one the prophecy is talking about, now when is this Messiah finally going to get here!?”

Instead, John lived into the prophecy. He both waited for the Messiah to come while also actively making himself and others ready for when he finally did come.

John did what I would call active waiting.

There is another type of waiting, a restful waiting where we quiet ourselves, slow down, and learn to trust in God; where we are more willing to listen and be still rather than to talk and act; where we let God be God and we let go of our desire to be in control. We wait for God to move, for God to show up, for God to put things in motion.

But even in this kind of waiting there is action on our part, as it requires a kind of determination to quiet ourselves and open ourselves up to God. Thus, we would be wrong to think waiting equals inaction, that waiting means doing nothing or sitting around until something happens.

Just think of all the times you have had to wait in your lives: waiting to go on a trip, waiting to start a job, waiting while a child grows inside you, waiting for a guest to come over. Each of those instances of waiting are filled with an immense amount of activity and preparation: packing clothes, getting a room ready for the baby, cleaning house and cooking a meal. While there is certainly a place for the truly restful kind of waiting, most “waiting” is full of purposeful determined tasks to be accomplished.

This, I would like to argue, is the main kind of waiting that Advent is about. As we enter into the story of Christ’s first coming, thus preparing ourselves along with John the Baptist, we also remember we are awaiting his next coming, and that we as a people are still very much in need of a savior. We need saving on personal, national, and global levels. Our world has been and continues to be very much in crisis and we need God to break in and bring about his truth, justice, peace, and love. So what do we do? Do we just sit around and wait for that to happen. I mean, if God’s in control, then shouldn’t we just let him do it?

One of the dangers in reading about these powerful Biblical figures is there is a level of detachment involved where we are tempted to say, “Well, hey, that’s a really cool prophecy. Man, John the Baptist was like this amazing crazy guy and God had this really important plan for his life.” We’re tempted to think that the call on John’s life is different from our own. But what if God gave us John the Baptist for the purpose of calling us all to the same thing? What if we’re all supposed to prepare the way of the Lord and make his paths straight?

The thing is, being the kind of people who are preparing the way of the Lord, that is, people who are actively waiting, is incredibly difficult. It is so much easier to give up and go into some kind of maintenance mode. There is a lot of ugliness and pain and sin and injustice in our world. Instead of boldly trying to make a straight path to God for people, it is much easier to just look away, or allow our hearts to grow cold and calloused, or to evade reality altogether and enter a fantasy world.

And here is where Arcade Fire comes in, focusing on 3 songs off of their first album Funeral: “Neighborhood #4 (Kettles)”, “Wake Up”, and “Rebellion”.

The song “Kettles” starts out like this:

I am waitin' 'til I don't know when,
Cause I'm sure it's gonna happen then.

The narrator of the song goes on to describe a scene where his neighbors are killing all the old folks, the witches, and the liars and all he can do is close his eyes and try to block it out. All these atrocities are going on right in front of him, but he hopes that if he ignores it or lets it be maybe it’ll change, maybe it’ll all go away. He has willingly blinded himself (by closing his eyes) but he knows he can’t keep it up, going on to say:

But my heart keeps watchin' 
Through the skin of my eyelids.
They say a watched pot won't ever boil,
Well I closed my eyes and nothin' changed,
Just some water getting hotter in the flames.

Even when he takes his eyes off the pot the water still doesn’t boil. He’s starting to find out that if he waits around and does nothing, NOTHING is exactly what he’ll get. If he wants the world (or the “neighborhood”) to change he better get up and do something about it.

But this willful blindness, if carried on, leads to one of two outcomes, for how long can one ignore the cries of those being burned at the stake? You either 1.) get a cold, closed off heart or you 2.) learn to evade reality altogether.

The first of these options we find in “Wakeup” where another narrator, perhaps the same narrator says: 
Somethin' filled up
My heart with nothin',
Someone told me not to cry.

Now that I'm older,
My heart's colder,
And I can see that it's a lie.

This person has been taught to wall themselves off from their emotions. The cries of those in pain continue but they don’t really hear them anymore. And yet, the narrator know this was a mistake. Knows this is no way to live. He goes on to say:

Children wake up,
Hold your mistake up,
Before they turn the summer into dust.

If the children don't grow up,
Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up.
We're just a million little god's causin' rain storms turnin' every good thing to rust.

The idea here is that if these kids, who have been taught not to cry, not to feel, don’t admit their mistake and make a change, they’re going to become these self-entitled maniacal little gods who go around destroying everything. If we don’t learn how to deal with our own pain and also look away from the pain of others we become detriments to all of humanity. We become a blight. He finishes the song saying “You better look out below!” meaning "I’m a god and I’ve got these lighting bolts and I’m going to blow up anything I want, like some overgrown spoiled baby.” This is not good. This is no way to be.

Option #2 is found in the song “Rebellion (Lies)”. I wonder how many of us who have listened to this iconic song frequently over the years have taken time to figure out what it’s actually about. Is Arcade Fire really advocating for not going to sleep? Are they really against sleeping? What could they possibly mean in saying:

Sleeping is giving in, 
No matter what the time is. 
Sleeping is giving in
So lift those heavy eyelids.
People say that you'll die faster than without water. 
But we know it's just a lie, 
Scare your son and scare your daughter.

What if the sleep they’re referring to isn’t actual physical sleep but instead a self-induced psychological sleep? What if you’ve fallen asleep in the real world and even though you’re still living in it you’re not actually engaging with it? What if you’ve created a fantasy world for yourself in order to escape the trauma around you?

The song goes on to say:

People say that your dreams are the only things that save ya.
Come on baby in our dreams, 
We can live our misbehavior.
Every time you close your eyes lies, lies!
People try and hide the night underneath the covers.
People try and hide the light underneath the covers.

In the chorus of the song Arcade Fire are very clear about what you will find if you close your eyes to the world and fall asleep to the cries of those suffering around you: Lies! Lies!

Again, this is no way to be. To fall asleep is to pretend the world does not exist. In our dreams and under the covers we can do whatever we want, we do not have to be held accountable. But Arcade Fire are calling us, daring us to stay awake.

The lyrics of "Rebellion" remind me of a few scriptures that are often read during Advent:

Therefore stay awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or in the morning—lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. And what I say to you I say to all: Stay awake. 
+++Mark 13:35-37 (ESV)

And also:

But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

 “Awake, O sleeper,
  and arise from the dead,
 and Christ will shine on you.”
+++Ephesians 5:13-14 (ESV)

According to the song, our propensity is to fall asleep, to block out the world and enter into the fantasies of our dreams, creating a more palatable reality for ourselves. There we try to hide both the night (or the horrors of the world) and the light (which I am going to hijack for the sake of this article and call the light Christ, who shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it). We cannot take the truth of reality for what it is, neither the desperate needs that requires our aid or the glorious light of a saving God to whom we must submit to and in whose presence we must turn away from our sin. We try to hide underneath the covers. If only we could go to sleep and leave it all behind...

But according to the Scripture we come awake in the light. What once was dead is now resurrected. We are no longer those who have fallen asleep or those whose hearts have grown cold. Instead we embrace the present sorrow of the world while also living out its redemption. Christ has come and is yet still coming. We await his coming by preparing the place in which we live. Seeking to live out his Kingdom in the here and now. We don’t turn away from those in need or those who are suffering but neither do we embrace despair. Instead we cling to our hope in Christ, as this scripture says:

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

+++Colossians 1:19-20 (ESV)

We wait for the Kingdom to come by working. Continually and faithfully, empowered by the Holy Spirit and not by our own strength.  It is a way of living whose call I am trying to open up my ears and my eyes to hear and to see. 

I don’t want to fall asleep. I want to prepare. I want to be ready. I want to be always in a state of active waiting.
For the first part of this Advent Reflection see here:
"We Used to Wait": A Very Special Arcade Fire Advent Reflection

For a list of all of Arcade Fire's Advent themed songs, including lyrics, please see here:
An Index: Arcade Fire Songs For Advent (on the themes of waiting, preparing, arriving, and light)

For an Arcade Fire ANTI-Advent Refection, please see here:
"I need the darkness, someone please cut the lights!": A Very Special Arcade Fire ANTI-Advent Reflection 

For a list of all of Arcade Fire's ANTI-Advent themed songs (with negative depictions of light) please see here:
An Index: Arcade Fire Songs Mentioning Light, Darkness, Mirrors, and Reflections

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