Monday, December 19, 2011

Readiness and Watchfulness

The readings for this Thursday in the third week of Advent included Jesus' parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.  This parable reminds us that it is a terrible thing to be unprepared for God's arrival.  As Jesus tells this story, we cannot help but feel the horror of the five virgins who are shut out from God because they don't have oil for their lamp.  Feeling their loss, we should be asking ourselves: "What must I do in order to make sure my oil flask is full? How I can make sure that I am ready for Christ's return?"

As we see in the Parable of the Talents (Matt 25:14-30), the passage immediately after the Parable of the Ten Virgins, readiness includes obedience to the Lord Jesus' and his teachings.  But before we move to this obedience, we must not forget the thing that precedes these works.  We cannot forget that the first part of readiness must be watchfulness and a true, relational knowledge of the One who is coming.  In light of this, we must consider two things:

1. Am I watching for Christ's return?  Do I long for it?  In this parable, all ten of the young women seem to long for the appearing of the Bridegroom, but only some (five to be exact) desire it in such a way that it is noticeable.

Imagine what these ten virgins were doing before this parable begins.  If you would've encountered any of the five foolish virgins during the weeks before the wedding, their lives would've looked the same as any other girl's in the village.  They were doing their chores, eating and living with their families. If you weren't able to talk to them, you may have never known they were preparing for a party on the wedding night.  However, if you would've watched the five wise virgins during the weeks preceding the wedding, you would've noticed them working harder, saving money here and there, so they could buy enough oil to be ready (no matter how late the Groom was).  Even without talking to them, you would've seen their longing for that night by the way they lived.

Many of us claim to love Jesus and many talk about his return, but only those whose lives are oriented around their longing for Christ truly long for his return.  It is their longing for Christ that produces their obedience, that makes their lives look different.  They have plans on seeing Jesus, and they've rearranged everything for those plans.  Without the longing there is no difference, and their longing is proved by this watchfulness.  Do you long for Christ's return? Is it provable by the way you live and your life plans?

2. Do I know Him?  The root for this proper longing for Christ is a true and deep knowledge of Him.  One reason why we don't long for Christ's return is often because we don't really know Him.  This can be true even for people who have been Christians for years and years.

It is difficult to be ready (or to even want to be ready) for the arrival of someone we don't really know.  It is  like picking up someone from the airport.  When we are looking for that person in a crowd, we always have in mind what they look like.  You scan the crowd for them, comparing all the other people you see to the image of them in your mind's eye.  "Oh, there he is!  No, he's too short."  or "Oh, there he is!  No, he's the wrong colored hair." If we don't know someone very well, or if haven't seen them in many years, it can be difficult to recognize them.  In the same way, as we are prepared and are watchful for Christ, we keep ever in our hearts the image of the One for whom we are looking.  But it is crucial that we know Him and that we are remembering him rightly.

This is where the second reading from Thursday comes to our aid.  In it, St. John offers us a vision of the One for whom we are watching.  It is a picture, among many in the Scriptures, for us to contemplate, read again and again, to visualize and to memorize.  Here is the One we're watching for: "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered... [the] Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth..." (Rev 5:5-6).

If this description of Jesus seems odd to you or me, it is only because we don't really know the Scriptures.  This passage is filled to the brim with meaning from the Old Testament, and this description, along with every other description of Jesus in the New Testament, cannot be understood without a thorough knowledge of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures and as experienced in the relational context of the Church.  To try to know Christ through any other means is to not really know Him at all.

For Christians, it should be a given that we cannot know Christ apart from the Scriptures and life in the Church.  And yet, many of us still harbor in our minds and hearts pictures of Christ that are not formed by these things and are, therefore, not true. Even when we try not to, we often remake Jesus into something more to our liking.

Sometimes we do this because we are ignorant of the Scriptures and of who Jesus really is.  Sometimes we try to remake Jesus because we don't understand who Jesus is, so we dumb down the complexity of who He is (by rejecting the mystery of his divine and human natures) or we reject some of his teaching. Sometimes we belittle Jesus by treating Him as less than the absolute monarch of all things because we just don't want anyone in control over our lives.  Unless we look again and again at the true picture of Him in Scripture, we will not know the real Jesus.

So, I think that in this last week of preparation in Advent, we have to ask:

- Do I know Him?  Do I really know Him?  Have I gained by picture of who Jesus is from the Scriptures and through knowing Him within the life of the Church?  Or have I gained a picture of Jesus shaped by the latest Christian fad teaching or the whims of my own heart?  Do I know the Scriptures and how each part of them relates to Christ?  Have I lived with Jesus day in and day out, or have I tried to keep Him and his Body (the Church) at a distance?

- Do I long for His return?  Or am I afraid of it? Am I indifferent about it?  It is impossible to have a life of preparation without this longing.  And it is impossible to have this longing without knowing Him.

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