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.
These bridesmaids saw their own smoldering lamps and then they saw their friends' lamps shining brightly: a brighter television screen, a shinier car, a shimmering mirage of needs. And they believed their lamps were not enough. Indeed, they thought their lamps more important than themselves—that without lit lamps, they had no identity at all. In that moment, they measured their worth by how much they owned.
And this is what made these bridesmaids so very foolish. They left when they should have remained. But what faith it would have taken to wake, and realizing their lack, to wait still, in frailty, in honesty, in transparency. What devotion it would have taken to wait on the bridegroom while their unlit lamps betrayed them. What trust in the bridegroom it would have required to believe that his love would have overlooked their lack, that his blazing light would have so dwarfed all other lights as to render them irrelevant.
It would have taken great faith to keep awake and wait. But it is hard to wait in the darkness. It is terrifying to wait, exposed by our need, our emptiness, our humanity. It is hard to wait when we feel like nothing we have or do will ever be enough.
It is much easier to scramble around shopping as we attempt to fill our lives and the season of Advent with so much stuff that we never have to look away from the glare and glitz of consumerism to see our own thinly burning lamps. How much easier it is to keep awake, keep moving, and to keep shopping. But the call of Advent is to keep awake and keep waiting on the coming of Christ. It is a call to keep awake and keep trusting in that coming, no matter how long the delay, no matter how ill-prepared we are or how insufficient our faith, our lights.
It is hard to hear such a call amid the siren song of Christmas consumerism when the season of Advent refuses to shout down the competition. The stillness of Advent is content to be ignored while it whispers for us to keep awake, and to wait, and to wait still, until we can hear it. This waiting, this willing long-suffering, is the quiet, gentle, resilient, and patient power of the God of Advent.