Over the years I have had several dreams in which I was ill–prepared for something important. These were anxious dreams, much like the kind that actors have about not remembering their lines. The most vivid of these dreams for me was one in which I was in the chancel of some church at a large formal church service of some kind. It wasn’t the church where I was serving, and it was in a way too, in the manner of dreams.
It was a little bit of my church, other churches I have served, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (where I was baptized), and for good measure probably several English Cathedrals and college chapels as well. In this dream there are a number of dignitaries there from a wide variety of churches. There is a Roman Catholic cardinal and an Orthodox primate, and a bunch of bishops and leaders of other churches.
And I seem to be in charge of this service. But the cause of my great anxiety is that I can’t remember, or perhaps never knew, why we are there, and I don’t know what the order of service is or what I am suppose to say and when. People are milling around and things are supposed to start, but I am unprepared. It is the kind of dream you wake from in a sweat and are relieved to know that is was just a dream.
My dream serves as a parable for the coming of God. It is a big event, a wonderful occurrence, and yet it also occasions a personal crisis for us because we know that we are all ill–prepared for it.
That is what the prophets are saying to us in Advent, that when God comes, we stand in a crisis. Because the advent of God is never merely an event in time and history. It doesn’t just happen in some vague future, it happens in my future, in your future. The season of Advent is really about this expectation, and preparation for the coming of God into our lives now, more than it is a mere remembrance of Christ’s birth and preparing for Christmas as it has become widely understood.
Or to put it another way, what if the event we celebrate at Christmas was suddenly and dramatically fulfilled? What if suddenly there was peace on earth, goodwill among people? What if all the visions of the prophets happened in a instant, swords beaten into ploughshares, the lion and lamb dwelling together, enemies reconciled? What might have to change about our world for us to be prepared for that?
What would have to change about our lives, our way of doing things, our laws and institutions, our morality and ethics, our commerce and industry, our politics and international relations?
People who wouldn’t dream of driving without a tool kit in the car, or of cooking without a fire extinguisher in the kitchen, never consider what preparations might be necessary for their souls, their communities and their society before the coming of God and his kingdom. Might we find ourselves as ill–prepared for the kingdom as a fish is ill–prepared to live out of water?
If the kingdom of God of which the prophets spoke suddenly dawned, how many of us would be prepared for it? The world will be turned upside down, says Isaiah. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” The blind shall see, the lame shall walk, the downcast shall smile and laugh, the poor shall be filled with good things, and the rich shall go away empty. The first shall be last and the last first on the great and terrible day of the Lord.
In the same way Jesus told parables to warn his hearers that they were ill–prepared for the kingdom. He said the kingdom is like a wedding feast to which those who are invited didn’t come, so those who were not invited are welcomed.
He said the kingdom is like when the foolish maidens neglected to keep their lamps full of oil and had to go to replenish them, so that they were locked out of the house when the bridegroom arrived.
He said the kingdom is like when the master goes on a trip and puts you in charge and unexpectedly returns to discover that you’ve been partying, drinking his single malt scotch, and listening to his Pink Floyd albums on vinyl instead of looking after the property.
I know I am ill-prepared in Advent.
(Picture: “John the Baptist” by Domenico Ghirlandaio)