One of my favorite Advent choral pieces finally made its way into our latest edition of the Presbyterian hymnal (thank you to our crew who made that little miracle occur). It is based on a traditional blues song entitled, “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” which has recordings that date back as far as 1928 with Blind Willie Johnson.
Derived from a parable in the gospel of Matthew, the hymn refers to the importance of being ready to complete one’s work here on earth because we never know when that time will come.
The parable is of the wise and foolish bridesmaids who are meant to wait and watch for the bridegroom. All of them fall asleep. However, half of them have planned ahead enough to bring extra supplies to keep them until morning. The other half have not and become rather indignant and demanding when they realize that their lamps are about to go out.
The parable and the song are a perfect fit for Advent because it is a time when we wait and watch for not only the Christ-child at Bethlehem (we know when that one will happen), but also for Christ’s second coming. We have no clue when that one will occur. Which makes the waiting and the watching all the more difficult. We are quite likely to drift off. And yet, we still had best pay attention enough that our lamps will not go out before Christ arrives.
Those lamps are our faith. They get filled by God, to be sure. Although the light may not be what we often think. The light our lamps shed is the works of love that we do in this world, work this song refers to. We are meant to keep awake, alert, and working until Christ returns. And that is how we are meant to spend our Advent, too – not just shopping, and baking, and decorating (fun as those things may be).
We are meant to shed light into a world full of shadows by the concrete and tangible ways we show God’s love.
So keep those lamps, for the time is drawing nigh…