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If you don’t make an effort to stop it, darkness will surround you. That is the first, literal, lesson Jesus delivers on the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
But darkness is not the only thing at stake — your meeting with the Bridegroom is also at stake. That’s where the parable takes on an unexpected depth. The parable about 10 women with lanterns waiting for a wedding is based on customs that are well-known in the Middle East. The custom was for a groom to leave his house to go to the bride’s house to get her, then bring her back to his own house for the wedding festivities. So, the maidens are waiting at one house or the other for the groom to come.
In either case there is one character missing: The bride. Where is the bride? The answer is significant and unexpected.
But let’s start with the literal: It takes careful preparation to enter the Kingdom of heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom,” Jesus begins.
Five foolish ones just brought just their lit lanterns; five wise ones also brought a flask of oil to keep their lamps burning bright. They all slept, but when the warning that the bridegroom was coming woke them, only the wise can get their lanterns lit again.
The foolish try to get the wise to share their flasks, but they won’t do it. They go to buy their own oil instead — and miss the Bridegroom’s arrival. They knock and knock, but he won’t let them in.
At first glance, this parable may seem at cross-purposes with the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, since the latecomers still succeed in that parable, but fail in this one. There is a clear difference, though. The laborers stood ready to work the whole day long; the foolish virgins slept when they could have gone to the oil merchant to tank up.
“Heigh ho, heigh ho, it’s off to work we go,” was the laborers’ theme song.
“Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” was the foolish virgins’ theme song.
And we all know what the wise virgins’ theme song was: “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”
What is the meaning of the oil in the parable?
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
The lantern light is our Christian witness. It’s our belief in Jesus Christ showing up in our actions. We are supposed to put his life on display in our very persons, not hide our commitment to him under a bushel basket.
The light of Christ is real: Mother Teresa said Yes when Jesus said “Come, be my light” — and if you met her, you could tell. After Raisa Gorbachev met John Paul II, she said, “He is light! He is pure light!”
We all can have the same light, but we can’t fake it: It comes from time spent in prayer, learning to think like God; time spent in service, learning to love like God; and time going through the joys and sorrows of life with God, learning to stick with him when you have a hundred reasons not to.
A lamp without oil in the night is as dark as a Christian who doesn’t pray, doesn’t serve, and drops the faith at the first challenge — and then expects to be welcomed into heaven anyway.
That’s what was foolish about the foolish virgins.
The foolish thought that lanterns stay lit without any effort. The wise know that light comes at a personal cost, it’s fed by the habits of a life of holiness. The foolish thought you can borrow lantern oil. But you can’t borrow someone’s habits — you have to build them up in yourself, applying effort over time.
Think of the ways the foolish virgins are presumptuous. First, they assume they will be safe, forgetting that the world is a dangerous place. It is now and it was then. To enter into darkness without being prepared to have light is to be a blind duck waiting for predators.
Second, the foolish virgins misunderstand the nature of the event and their place in it. They would have been ready if the bridegroom had come on time. They presume he would; they presume his timing is theirs; that he exists to meet their terms. In fact, we exist to meet his terms, and we have to be prepared that his timing will be out of step with ours.
The failed ladies-in-waiting aren’t bad, exactly. They are good, even. They are committed celibates. But that isn’t enough. Simply skipping the pleasures of the world is not enough. A positive witness is required. You have to be light.
But one question remains: Where is the bride?
Jesus has various ways of describing the Kingdom of heaven throughout the Gospels. The kingdom is like a day at work, in a boat or on a vineyard. It’s like a net, or like a pearl of great price. It’s like a banquet. It’s like a king returning and wanting you to give him your talents. It’s like a mustard tree.
But most of all it’s like a wedding — or, better, it is a wedding. Jesus gives a lot of analogies for the kingdom, so we will know that it isn’t reducible to any one of them — it is a multi-faceted reality that goes beyond human summation. But many of his analogies mention a wedding: a king leaving for a wedding; a master coming back from a wedding; a wedding banquet ghosted by the invited guests; wise and foolish virgins waiting from a groom.
But one person is missing from all of Jesus’s wedding parables: the bride. We never meet a bride in any of these stories. Why not? Because we are the bride.
In this parable, we are meant to see ourselves in the place of the bride. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, who is now Father Simeon, points out that the word for “virgin” in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins actually carries the connotation of “an unmarried girl of marriageable age.” The bride is missing and terms are kept suggestive and vague about the waiting virgins, because it’s not a polygamous marriage — we are one bride in the Church.
We, as members of the Church, are singly and collectively the bride. We are bathed in baptism like an ancient wedding bath. We receive Jesus Christ into our very bodies in the Eucharist — in other words, we receive Christ like Mary did, the original spouse of the Holy Spirit.
Our marriage starts now, and is completed in heaven. Heaven is a wedding banquet where we will celebrate the wedding feast of the lamb, the wedding of Christ the bridegroom to us, to all the members of the Church.
Paul gives another look at what the Bridegroom’s arrival will look like.
In St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book of the New Testament, depicts the same scene as Jesus’s parable does. But instead of waking to a town crier shouting “The Bridegroom is coming!” we will wake to hear “the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God.” Those asleep will arise not to light their lanterns, but “will be caught up together … to meet the Lord in the air.”
Until that day, we are the light of the world. We are the ones who show that Christ’s way is not impossible. If we don’t live in a manner that is different from the world, we are simply part of the darkness. If we light a lantern, we show the way.
Think of our journey to the end as a lantern procession. If we keep our lanterns fed with oil, together we will dispel the darkness, attracting more and more people into the wedding party of the bridegroom, as we march as one to glory.