Buridan’s ass is the invention of a French philosopher who wanted to teach about free will. We’ll get the point in a moment.
The donkey can serve other purposes as well, especially half way through Advent. We’ll get that point, too.
Here is the deal: Life is full of paradoxes, of apparent contradictions, of choices almost impossible to make.
The philosopher told of how “Buridan” placed his hungry donkey exactly half way between two identical bales of hay, which were exactly as alluring as each other to the perplexed animal.
There was no reason at all for him — we’ll assume that the beast was a “he” — to choose one or the other. He could bray just as loud about one as about the other.
Eventually, he starved.
We can keep the metaphor of the donkey in mind when pondering ways to regard and “use” the season of Advent.
Listen as you pray the prayers, sing the hymns and program events for the season.
At first hearing one gets the impression that the texts and the people cannot make up their minds about the two poles symbolized by Advent.
One looks back to the first appearance of Jesus and even to events leading up to his arrival on the scene. Advent leads believers to review the acts of God toward God’s people and the stories that make Jesus’ presence something vivid to us.
“Repent!” we hear, for things have gone wrong, and his past acts lead to present newness.
The other pole draws believers to the future, to what has not yet occurred. The shout before the Lord’s table, “Christ has died” pulls to the past. “Christ will come again!” pulls toward the future.
Can’t the Gospels, the church, the people who give us the liturgy make up their minds?
Shall we like the donkey in the story be drawn to the wonderful stories of the past so that we cannot conceive of the future, the unknown?
Or shall we be drawn to the promises of the future, which is so enticing because nothing bad has happened in it? Shall we be wearied, befuddled, tired or repulsed as we decide where to put our energies?
The Christian story sees no paradox, no set of two stories that cancel each other out or lead to confusion? So one would think.
Past, present and future
Sentimentalists about the irretrievable past or dreamers about an inconceivable future cannot get the treasures of Advent.
Listen to them, watch them celebrate: They do not show signs that they are on the way to spiritual starvation. They see no contradictions between past and future.
Christians like to see and then say that we live with “having” and at the same time “hoping.” Let some ask whether this season, now half over, is about the past or the future, and you can answer: “Yes!”
One last question: As we look forward to the joy of the Nativity at Christmas, doesn’t the observance of Advent as a season of repentance color everything gray and dark?
If we think that it does, that repentance only effects and teaches us gloom, we have not understood the gift of repentance.
In the Gospel stories everything is as saving in repentance as in thanksgiving.
Jesus talked about his being among us as the bridegroom at a wedding party, and it was repenting, the season Advent thing to do, that represented the case for joy, release and, yes, celebration.
Advent may be good for disciplines, including repenting, but not for sadness. So, look both ways, back and forward, without contradiction, with joy.
Martin E. Marty is a pastor in the ELCA ministry and a long-time professor of Christian history at the University of Chicago.