Prepare – Advent Post #2

Before preparing to change the world, look around your own house three times.
Chinese Proverb

I am back after a week spent in Durham and have been flung into Christmas preparations. Normally Christmas at my mum’s house is my immediate family and Hannelie, but this year the Groblers and Nortons are joining forces and what with that plus some waifs and strays, there will be ten people sitting down for Christmas Dinner. My way of coping with this? Lists. Lots of lists. There is a list for the Christmas food order, a list of presents, a list of decorations, and a list of “others” (buy logs for the fire! Clean the carpet! Take the cat to the vet! Repair EVERYTHING!)

Preparation is key here. I want everybody to feel welcomed, everyone to feel loved, everyone to enjoy the day. Most of all, I want it to be stress-free (yes I realise the irony in this – stressing for weeks so that one day of my life can be without stress!) I am aware, though, that I am likely to be the one causing the stress, what with the lists and the demands and the organising. If I am not careful there will be a schedule for Christmas day and it will all be ruined as I maniacally force people to obey it – “you are not allowed a mince pie until after the christmas carols and before opening the presents!” (Pray for me!)

As I make an ever-increasing pile of lists down here in Somerset my church up in Newcastle is using the Advent worship and  small group material that I prepared for them in November. Last week it was all about waiting for God,  this week they are thinking about what it means to “prepare” for Christ’s coming. Something that is often forgotten is that traditionally Advent is not just a time about getting ready for Christmas (looking forwards/backwards to Christ’s birth), but also a time looking forward/forwards to Christ’s return. Advent readings, then, tend to come in two categories: those that are about the story of the birth and early ministry of Jesus (the angel arriving at Mary’s house; Jesus’s crazy cousin John the Baptist starting to rinse people in the Jordan), and those that have an eschatological* feel (Jesus talking about his own return, Old Testament prophecies etc.)

Image © MCC Newcastle (www.mccnewcastle.org.uk)

Image © MCC Newcastle (www.mccnewcastle.org.uk)

With this in mind, I chose the story of the wise and foolish girls (Matthew 25:1-13) for the week’s preparation-themed Bible Study. It is a troubling story, told by Jesus not to the crowds that followed him, but privately, to his own disciples (see Matt 24:3). This fact alone, I think, tells us something: this is a parable designed for the ears of the followers of Jesus, a message specifically for them.

So there were ten girls, and they were all invited to be bridesmaids. Back in the day this meant that one of their jobs was to light the way for the groom as he went through the streets after dark to the house where his bride was waiting. To do this they probably had torches made from oil-soaked cloth wrapped around a wooden pole. Timing was important – the torches wouldn’t last long so someone would shout a warning and then they would light them just in time for the groom. In this story five of the girls forget – or can’t be bothered, or don’t know that they need to – bring oil for the lamps. They ask the other five for oil, but there isn’t enough to go around (according to the “wise” girls anyway), and so they miss out on the wedding party. The groom even says he doesn’t know them.

(You can read the whole passage, plus have a look at the questions by downloading the study on this page)

Perhaps the less well prepared girls should have taken a leaf out of my book and written a list:

To Do: Buy oil for wedding!!!

In the study material I wrote, I asked these two questions:

– Jesus often used stories to explain truths to his disciples. What do you think the lamps, oil, young girls, bride and groom represent?

– What would have happened if the “wise” girls shared their oil with the “foolish” girls?

I wrote these questions pretty much on face value, but as I thought about them further in order to write the notes for leaders, I realised that the situation is more complicated. If we agree with the traditional interpretation of the story, then it is easy enough to see that the “groom” is Christ, the “bride” is the Church, and the young girls are the believers. Although I didn’t ask about the house, Jesus himself said that the parable was about the “end of the age”, so it is fair to assume that it represents the Kingdom of God. But what about the lamps and the oil?

The lamps and oil are crucial to the story, and they are crucial to answering the second question about the sharing (or not) of the oil. As I researched the story, I found numerous possible interpretations. Here is a list (just for a change!):

Good works
Praise
Grace
Faith
Commitment to God
The Good News

I have no specific answer to this, but here are some thoughts:

– If the oil represents something like “grace” or “praise” or “commitment” then it is something that is “non-shareable!”
– However, if it represents the Good News (the Gospel) then it certainly is shareable and indeed, it should have already been shared long before the “girls” got into the situation with the coming of the Groom!
– The parable does not praise the girls who did not share the oil. Is is viable to say that they should have shared the oil if, for example, it refers to something like the Gospel?
– Where were the “foolish” girls when the “wise” girls were buying their oil?
– All of the girls fall asleep, but the “wise” girls had already prepared themselves. Is “falling asleep” a reference to death? Does this mean that we need to prepare ourselves in life because afterwards it will be too late? If so, this makes the sharing of the oil even more important!

I would love to know your thoughts. What do you think the oil represents? In the small groups, participants were asked to light a candle to symbolise that they were willing to listen to what God was saying to them about being prepared. If you prefer, you could use the comment box below to make your “to do” list – things that you think you need to do to prepare for Christmas, or for Christ. I am looking forward to reading some!

*Eschatological: a word people use to sound clever about the return of Christ.

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