On Sunday, we begin the first of four weeks of Advent, a season when we essentially celebrate the act of waiting. This is made easier for us now when we know the timeline: four weeks of Advent, then Christmas. It’s literally clockwork, but what are we supposed to do if when we don’t know the timeline? Even as I write this, on Thursday, deadline looming near, I’m fulfilling the adage, coined by Cyril Parkinson, a 20th century British scholar, who said, “work expands so as to fill the time available for completion.” It’s known as “Parkinson’s Law,” and I’m guessing you’ve felt it’s pull in your own life.
The last few weeks I’ve been listening to and studying Bach’s Cantata, BWV 140, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme.” Here’s a link to my favorite recording of it if you care to listen. It’s one of the best of Bach’s cantatas, if they can even be ranked. The first, fourth and final movements incorporate the hymn text and tune written by Philipp Nicolai (No. 349 in the Glory to God hymnal). This hymn references the parable of the wise and foolish virgins, a cautionary tale told by Jesus to prepare his listeners for the coming of the kingdom of heaven. Though the hymn only mentions the wise virgins, we all know the story of the other five (and I’d probably be one of them) who push Parkinson’s law to the edge and come up wanting, desperately searching for oil and missing the arrival of the bridegroom.
I love what Bach does with this cantata in the inner movements. Unusually, for the cantatas, there are two duets for the soprano and bass, who sing a dialog between the Soul and Jesus, characters in a kind of sacred opera. The words they sing are based on the love poetry of the Song of Songs: Soul: “My friend is mine…” Jesus: “and I am yours,” S: “love will never part us.” It’s the love story that is the truth at the heart of the gospel. I don’t know that it’s an antidote to Parkinson’s law, which I still feel working in my life, but it’s a better perspective to have when working and waiting.