There are those who live in the past. I come from a people who are influenced as much by what happened three centuries ago as by what is going on now. For some ethnicities, that can stretch to eight or nine centuries. Think of how the Crusades, the medieval Christian “jihads,” distant memories in the West, still influence the thinking of the Middle East even today. Being guided by the past can also, of course, be helpful. We are greatly enriched by the Scriptures from two or three millennia ago and by the Fathers of long past eras, and by the worship traditions they have passed on to us. And a wise person learns from both the legacies and the mistakes of the past.
There are those also who live in the future. Full of plans and intentions, they have mapped out where they expect to be some time from now. They may even be able to tell you their plans for eternity, ultimate future shock. As with learning from the past, some foresight for the future is a characteristic of the wise. But those who can only relate to the future live beyond some simple delayed gratification or wise provision. Even beyond those mired in the past, who at least know how the story unfolds, those who live in the future live beyond reality in a speculation which may or may not happen.
Advent is billed as the season of preparation. We are preparing for the imminent festival of Christmas, the past story of prophecy about the Messiah and the future story of preparing for the ultimate Day of the Lord.
But Advent itself often is trampled and crowded from its place in the parade, which is a pity. We are a very impatient people, the inventors of fast food, instant dinners, speedy journeys, high speed internet, all manner of gadgets and procedures to do things in a hurry. As a result, Christmas is rushed into anticipated being even before Advent has a chance to begin. Churches are among the culprits, with “Christmas” programs and pageants happening early in Advent. In contrast, the twelve days of Christmas are mostly ignored by people already satiated by the panicked pace before the real Festival has begun and already on to the next quick fix in their lives.
Unless you arrived in America this morning, you already know that. This plea for a measured, full, quiet Advent followed by a measured full celebratory Christmas through into Epiphany will probably not greatly retard your rush, pushed by all the pressures of the society around us and perhaps your own need to live an instant life.
But it is Advent which, more than any other season, melds together past, present and future to make them all meaningful and interconnected in our lives. The keynote for it is a series of stories Jesus tells, in Matthew 24 and 25. The disciples, along with their contemporaries and ours, are fascinated by the future, specifically the end of the world. They ask Jesus on several occasions when it will happen, so they can be prepared for the day. In reply, Jesus spends a lot of time sharing a series of parables and comments. This indicates both how important the question was to the disciples and how much Jesus thought it necessary to extensively address the subject, to get their thinking straight.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25 is one of these parables. Its central point is the same as the other stories he tells regarding the end times. Preparation is not only foresight, but also a state of being. The wise virgins purchase oil for their lamps in order to be prepared for whenever the bridegroom comes, the foolish live for the moment and don’t bother until the crisis is upon them. When the disciples want to know the date of the last day, Jesus never tells them. Instead, they are told not to worry about the last day, but to live in a state of preparation, so that the last day will find them as any other day.
Those whose faith is focused on an afterlife, with little thought for living now are rebuked. Separately, those who want to simply remember and relive the glory days of the old Israel, to rise in arms with the Messiah leading them to overthrow the Roman yoke, are equally rebuked, being told that the Messiah’s Kingdom is a new concept, not a reliving of the past. The Church echoes the same message with the propers for All Saints Day, a pivotal day introducing Advent. The epistle reveals the future glory of the saints. The Gospel is the Beatitudes, Jesus’ plan for how to live today, a very different ethic than the Commandments of the past, which he fulfills and thereby relieves us of the burden of complying with them or else.
In other words, you prepare for the glorious coming of the heavenly Bridegroom by living continually by the ethics of the Beatitudes, the oil of the parable. It is neither the past nor the future, though it is important to be informed about both, but it is the continually prepared state of the present which matters. The same chapter, Matthew 25, follows this with Jesus’ picture of a Judgement Day where it turns out the crucial element is how you treated those less fortunate than you. It is about your ethics and compassion right now, not your correct answers to doctrinal questions on a future trial date. To think therefore that belief is unimportant would be a mistake, corrected by numerous other Scriptural references. But it would be at least as big a mistake to think that living according to the teaching of the Beatitudes in a life of loving servanthood is irrelevant, because Jesus makes it abundantly and frequently clear that it is of great importance. Sometimes people conclude that because they are saved by grace apart from the works of the Law, Christian compassionate living is not part of the plan. Those people are wrong. Being saved by unmerited grace should absolutely infuse you with overflowing love and compassion.
All of which is to say that we should not rush our way through Advent, but rather savor its emphasis on preparation as a way of life. The story is told of St. Francis of Assisi working to plant his garden one spring, and being asked what he would do if told he would die at the end of that day. His response was that he would finish planting the garden. It is the answer of a person living the prepared life, which needs no sudden amendment or repentance, and continues with an activity which, under those circumstances, would entirely benefit others. It is the Advent message.