On Tuesday afternoon, I contracted a viral infection that systematically began evacuating the contents of my stomach, intestines, gall bladder, and liver as quickly as possible. Every half hour I scurried from my fetal position on the couch back to the restroom where I’m sure the neighbors and the folks in the next county could hear my wretched retching. After about four hours of agony, my fiancé finally convinced me to go to the Emergency Room. Severely dehydrated, I accomplished the weak-kneed feat of maneuvering down the stairwell and out to the car, all the while clutching a white, plastic wastebasket like a shipwreck survivor clinging to a life preserver.
With my fiancé supporting me, I stumbled into the ER at about eleven at night. The woman behind the counter took my information and fitted me with a bar-coded bracelet. Another woman took my vital signs and then told me to take a seat in the waiting area. I don’t know how long we waited. My sense of time was reduced to half-hourly dashes to the restroom followed by several, sweat-drenched minutes sitting on the tile floor heaving with exhaustion. Sometime after my fourth trip to the restroom, a nurse mercifully called me back. I sat in a wheelchair as an orderly navigated me to a bed in the hallway of the overcrowded emergency department.
The nurse poked an IV tube into the back of my right hand and fed into my bloodstream the same anti-nausea medicine they give to chemotherapy patients. Then she hooked up a bag of saline, and I watched through half-lidded eyes as the saline began dripping from its elevated place into the tube. My fiancé read the words on the machine to me: 500 milliliters per hour. The equipment was making the saline drip at a proscribed rate – the bag would be empty in two hours. With the anti-nausea medicine suppressing my urge, I now had a new way to measure the time.
One empty bag of saline later, I was showing marked improvement. A little color had returned to my cheeks, and I was thirstier than I had ever been. The nurse allowed me ice chips and promised a popsicle later on if I continued to feel better. I crunched down a Styrofoam cup’s worth of ice and then collapsed back on the bed in the hallway. While I sucked on the ice chips, the nurse hung another bag of saline, and sped up the distribution of the liquid into my body. Now I was receiving 1000 milliliters an hour, or one full bag.
A second empty bag of saline later, I received the promised popsicle, and my fiancé correctly guessed the punch line to the truly horrendous joke stamped on the popsicle stick (How does thread get to school? On a spool bus). After I finished the popsicle, the nurse propped me back in the wheelchair for a ride to the radiology department for a chest x-ray. The doctor wanted to make sure that my gastric pyrotechnics hadn’t torn my esophagus. The short trip wore me out, and I dozed off and on through my third bag of saline, also pushed into me at 1000 milliliters an hour.
By the end of bag three, I just wanted to go home and crawl into my own bed away from the bright fluorescence and constant beeps and blips of the ER. My doctor had other plans, however, and instructed the nurse to hang a fourth bag of saline. This time, she turned off the machine controlling the dispersal of the IV into my arm. The bag would finish not in one hour or two like the other bags, which were “pushed” into me, but at the undefined rate of gravity.
I knew that eventually the fourth bag of saline would empty. I knew that I would be allowed out of the ER for the blissful comfort of my own bed and sleep uninterrupted by illness or beeping monitors. I just didn’t know when. This is the same quandary that the season of Advent invites us to explore. We don’t know when Jesus will return, but we know that he will return. Now, we live in a culture dependent on the constant, steady, and unwavering march of time. We punch in time cards at work. The train leaves the station at 7:12 sharp. The firm expects so many billable hours. Time is money. So when Jesus himself says, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son,* but only the Father,” his words run smack into our conception of time. How could we not know when something will happen? How could we not know when to begin our preparation for the big day?
By not putting a date and time on his return, Jesus pushes us to celebrate the much more important fact that his return will happen. He understands human nature too well. By initiating the expectation of return without a time frame, he delivers us the perfect set of variables to make us practice constant vigilance. When I knew the saline bag would run out in one hour, I had no need to watch it. The 1000 milliliters ticked by one after another in predictable, rhythmic progression. But when the nurse turned off the machine during the fourth saline bag, I had to keep looking up at it to see how quickly gravity was doing its work.
I knew the bag would empty, but I wanted to be sure I knew exactly when those last drops would fall so that I could leave the hospital. In the same way, during the season of Advent, we practice our awareness of God’s presence in our lives so that we can more readily identify the signs of Christ’s reign breaking into the world. During the season of Advent, I invite you to turn off the machines that push the IV. Let gravity take over. Know that the “when” is less important than the “what.” Jesus is coming; indeed, Jesus is always here, as well. When we worry less about the when, we can begin to see the presence of God happening all around us. So turn off your clocks. Forget marking off days in your Advent calendar. And just live with the grace-filled knowledge that Christ is coming.