There are plenty of things to keep us awake this time of year. The flat, matter-of-fact voice of fear. You have a great deal to do by next week. The whiney voice of anxiety. You quite simply will not finish these things. The many voices of arguments won and lost in the course of a day. Why did I say that? Why didn’t I say that? By year’s end, Advent finds us tired and needing sleep.
But then, the season just might itself keep us awake, mulling over old stories. This tide of the year makes me think of a shrunken old insomniac, in a story older even than Christmas, who sat up late one night, his back against the ribs of an oak. It was a hot night, and he had found his bed too close for the easy breathing that brings sleep. He had slipped from his tent and crossed the grasses to the edge of Mamre, where he slumped, resting each arm on roots that stretched longer than his length before plunging deep in the land.
I’m an old tree myself, he thought to himself. And I’m as good as dead.
He must have fallen asleep, lulled by the deep quiet of the soil, dreaming the voice of the promised child never born to him. For now he found himself awake, violently awake, his pulse high, his breath fast. At first, he couldn’t name the change in the night around him, but his fingers tightened on the roots as a slow gathering of sound came round him, a long breathing that stirred no grasses, moved no branches, but swirled slowly and breathed his name.
The man stood slowly, pushing up from the roots, scraping his back against the trunk. Then he spoke:
You have given me no children.
There was another long quiet—and then again came the gradual gain of sound, the rolling fullness of voice.
Look up and count the stars. So shall your offspring be.
Advent is a wakeful time. It gets us counting stars when we can’t sleep. It calls us back to old stories that stretch down the years from life to countless life, stories as fathomless as the starlight that one night would shine over the birth of the greatest child of Abraham.