23 Pentecost, Proper 27 – November 12, 2017
The phrase….hurry up and wait. Tom Petty’s song…The Waiting is the Hardest Part are things that come to the mind with the parable of the bridesmaids.
In her commentary on Working Preacher, Dr. Susan Hylen offers a really helpful insight: “the point of the parable is not constant readiness. “Keep awake” does not imply that the disciples should never sleep, standing vigil through the ages for Christ’s imminent return. In fact, all of the bridesmaids, wise and foolish, are asleep when the shout announces the groom’s approach.
What is distinctive about this parable is its focus on the delayed return of the expected one. The passage does not simply call for right action in the groom’s absence. It calls for recognition that he may be delayed”.
It’s also helpful to know how weddings were actually handled back in the times when Jesus walked the earth. Life was hard. People worked from sunup to sundown. Weddings provided a much-needed break from the routine–a time to get together–to celebrate–to have fun. The bride and groom would throw a party that would last almost a week. There was food–and wine–and dancing.
Unlike our weddings that start with the ceremony, their weddings started in the evening when the bridegroom came to the bride’s house to escort her to their new home. Friends would line the route, lighting their way with burning torches. It was a grand and festive display.
It was a great honor to be invited to be a torchbearer for that procession–like being invited to be a bridesmaid today. The young women who agreed to serve as torchbearers were expected to be ready for the big day.
When the bridegroom came, the bridesmaids woke. The wise ones lit their torches, but the foolish ones had no oil. They tried to borrow from the wise ones, but the they refused. They knew that if they gave away half their oil, the bridal procession would be brightly lighted for half the way but plunged into darkness the last half. So, they told the foolish bridesmaids to go and buy oil.
The focus is on the waiting – what happens when the bridegroom is delayed. But, you know, not all waiting is the same. Waiting for something good – the closing on the house of your dreams, the promotion in a job or acceptance to college – is a lot different than waiting for something that is hard – waiting to see if this time you will be able to get pregnant, or for the foreclosure of your home because you couldn’t make the payment, or the doctor’s report confirming that the cancer has returned. And whether you are waiting for something good or bad, when the anticipated arrival is delayed, it’s almost always anxiety-provoking: why haven’t I heard from the college admissions office? Have they arrived safely? When will we hear from the doctor? The waiting, indeed, is the hardest part.
So, perhaps when the waiting is for something positive, like a wedding, can we slow down to see in the moments of preparation and anticipation – blessing. Once it’s here – the job, the promotion, the acceptance, life will take on its own new and likely hectic timing. Can waiting at times be seen as gift rather than obstacle?
This parable also reminds us that there are some things we can’t borrow. The maidens wanted to borrow oil, but could not. We can go next door and borrow an egg or a cup of sugar. We can borrow a drill or a saw. We can borrow a car or a tractor. But we cannot borrow Christian character or integrity. We cannot borrow wisdom or selfless service. And we cannot borrow a relationship with God.
The wise women of this story call us to attend to that which will deepen our relationship with God and hone our ability to receive God’s ever-present grace.
The wise bridesmaids do what is necessary to provide light. In the context of the teaching that Jesus is doing here about the kingdom of heaven and the end of days, it’s good to remember that, at its Greek root, the word apocalypse means to reveal, to uncover, to unhide. The bridegroom is meant to be seen when he finally arrives (as is the bride). The bridesmaids, these women, are the ones who provide the light by which the celebrants may see the groom.
Jesus means for these light-bearing bridesmaids to inspire and model for us what it means to perceive the presence of Christ among us and to minister to him in the infinite and surprising variety of forms that he takes. This parable, in fact, offers a powerful resonance with the gospel stories of the women who, seeing Jesus and recognizing who he is, anoint him with oil in a lavish fashion.
This parable is about waiting for something really wonderful. A wedding feast! A feast that we are all invited to. But, how do we wait? How do we spend our time waiting if we trust in God’s promises? Do we live our life as if we do trust in God’s promises?
As Jan Richardson (the Painted Prayerbook) says: “There is work to do: flasks to be filled, lamps to be lighted, long nights ahead that call for labor and readiness instead of rest. Especially with Advent approaching, it’s a good time to ask ourselves what it is we’re getting ready for, and how, and why. It’s a good time, too, to ponder how, and whether, we are seeking sustenance for our own selves. We cannot find or fashion light merely by our own efforts; it comes not solely with labor but by opening ourselves to the light of Christ that we find as we linger with one another.
This is the place where I would normally ask what practices help you cultivate your openness to the God who calls us to the celebration—what are you doing to keep your oil flask full? But I find myself thinking of the fabled story from the desert fathers, the one where Abba Lot goes to Abba Joseph and recites the list of practices by which he’s seeking the presence of God: praying, meditating, fasting, etc. “What else can I do?” he asks. Old Abba Joseph stands up and stretches his hands toward heaven. His fingers, the story says, become like ten lamps of fire. “If you will,” Abba Joseph says to Abba Lot, “you can become all flame.”
And so I want to ask, not just how are we keeping our oil flasks full, not just how we’re taking care of our lamps, but how might we ourselves become all flame? What are we burning for? How do we become people who do not merely carry well-provisioned lamps but who are vessels of living light, illuminated by the one who called himself the Light of the World?
In these dark November nights, this prayer: For one another, with one another, may we blaze. Amen.