Progressive Christian Channel
Waiting Still: Meditations on Advent
Nowhere, of course, is this American devotion to consumption and keeping awake more apparent than on Black Friday when Americans brave the cold and the dark, fighting crowds and crankiness to stand in line for cheap toys and overpriced electronics at hours when they would normally be snug in their beds with visions of sugarplums.
Keep awake! And completely miss the point. Americans keep awake only so that we can keep consuming, so that we can fill our lives with ever more stuff and ever more busyness. We stay awake on Black Friday to buy more or to stand in more and longer lines. On other days, we stay awake to surf the Internet mindlessly, check our work e-mail from home while we give our children baths, or work a few extra hours because the house feels too lonely. We keep awake, keep moving, keep consuming as much and as quickly as possible so we can get lost in the succor of noise and department store lights that masks our deep spiritual lack, our profound loneliness and our agitated listlessness.
But the command of Jesus isn't to keep awake and keep moving. Rather it is to keep awake. And to wait. And wait. And wait still.
This is the discipline of Advent, and, in some ways in our modern culture of frenetic activity, it is more difficult even than the penitence and denial of Lent.
Time is money and waiting is costly. The Industrial Revolution and much of our current economy is predicated on the idea of streamlining processes to eliminate waiting along the production line. But it's not just a symptom of modernity. The siren song of midnight shopping dates back to antiquity during the first-ever recorded Black Friday, of sorts at least.
See, there were once ten bridesmaids who could not keep awake while waiting on a long-delayed bridegroom. They were supposed to keep awake to welcome the bridegroom, but all had failed. Echoing the experiences of the disciples, who could not keep awake while Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, the bridesmaids fell asleep.
In the darkness of midnight, however, a cry came out that the bridegroom was arriving. Doors were thrown open. There was excitement and confusion as the bridesmaids scrambled to find their oil lamps in the pitch black night. Finally, five of the bridesmaids managed to light their lamps, and their faces, with the betrayal of sleep still lining their cheeks and eyes, flared to life in the firelight, beacons to the bridegroom.
Keep awake and light your lamps!
The remaining five, however, did not have enough oil. They stood, terrified, in the shadows cast by the beatifically lit faces of their five friends. The five without oil asked with growing desperation whether they might all share what was left of the oil. The five with bright lights, though, had a good deal going and they weren't about to let go of anything they owned because perhaps—perhaps!—there would not be enough for everyone. Instead, they suggested the five without oil go to wake the dealers in the dead of night and buy some extra oil.
Keep awake and go shopping!
And at their peril, the five without oil left. In the dark and in the cold, they left their friends, the house, and the approaching bridegroom to bust down the doors of sleeping oil dealers and shop for oil. These bridesmaids, up until that moment, had done nothing wrong. They had been no less watchful than their counterparts. That had all failed to keep awake. But when they finally did wake at the approach of the long-awaited bridal couple, they failed to wait. They awoke and kept moving.
David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalist. He is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. His meditations and reflections on Scripture have appeared in Ready the Way: A Walk Through Advent, a 2009 publication of the Episcopal Church, Patheos.com, the Christian Century Web site and various blogs. Follow his writing at his Facebook page or on twitter.