“Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
- Matthew 25:1-13
- Troy Hatfield
A few years ago, someone asked me, somewhat cynically, “Troy, what does Advent do?!” I think I understand the question, even though I think it impossible (and unfair) to minimize this season to a formula or set of accomplishments. However, I think this Matthew text does help to highlight two encouragements given to us when we intentionally engage Advent.
Advent encourages us to keep watch
I’ll be honest – there are times when I grow tired of speaking, “Come! Lord Jesus, Come!” It feels a little like I’m dealing with the Jesus who cried “wolf.” What about all of these “Look, I am coming soon!” promises? (Revelation 22) I’m growing tired of hearing this without some kind of fulfillment. I feel sympathetic for these sleepy virgins in Matthew 25 – they were waiting and waiting for someone who “was a long time in coming” (v5).
It’s tough to keep watch (v13). It sets oneself up for possible, and likely, disappointments. I would much rather keep myself busy and fill up my time by doing something. Keeping watch feels wasteful. I understand why the five “unwise” virgins elected to go buy some oil. It doesn’t make much sense to sit around and wait.
And as I keep paying attention to my reactions to this waiting and keeping watch, it becomes clear to me that maybe this isn’t a waste of time after all. Maybe this is meant to be an active watching – and maybe I’m to keep watch not just for this far off bridegroom, but also for myself. Maybe this is an invitation to pay attention to myself. Why do I feel so anxious or unsettled or bored or angry? Joan Chittister sees Advent as an opportunity for “learning how to live while we wait.” Could it be that this season invites us to watch ourselves while we watch for the coming bridegroom?
Advent encourages us to keep open
Do you ever think about the Advent and Christmas season and immediately whisper to yourself, “Here we go again…” You know what is coming – the same arguments, the same crummy gifts, the same rolled eyes, the same wishing you were somewhere else. Nothing will be different from the past years. No one will have changed. I’ve got this figured out.
Yeah, me neither…
Advent invites us to seriously consider the ways our hearts are closed, our beliefs cemented, our expectations frozen. The Matthew passage speaks of a door being shut (v10). As I get older, I’m becoming more aware that many doors aren’t shut on me, but they are shut by me. This season is an opportunity to fling wide the doors of certainty and doubt – to be open, again as Chittister recommends, to “what is beyond the obvious.”
This Matthew text ends with four very difficult words.
You. Do. Not. Know.
The encouragement to keep open stems from this reality. I don’t know. This year could be different. I could be surprised. The bridegroom could indeed come, just as he promised.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “What keeps the wild hope of Christmas alive year after year in a world notorious for dashing all hope is the haunting dream that the child who was born that day may yet be born again even in us.”
And so we keep watch – looking for his being born within us. And we keep open – believing it might be possible. May this be true for each of us this season in surprising ways.