Wisdom of Solomon 6.12-16 Wisdom is found by those who look for her
1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 Do not grieve about those who have who in Jesus
Matthew 25.1-13 Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour
Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
This evening’s gospel reading is both familiar and uncomfortable.
Perhaps it is familiar because the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids is one that can easily be visualised.
Ten bridesmaids with their oil fuelled lamps; five have got enough oil and five haven’t, and on the stroke of midnight, when the lookout calls that the Bridegroom is coming five are ready to go and meet him, and five are not.
It’s the subject of the great Advent hymn, ‘Wake, O wake!’
Wake, O wake! With tidings thrilling
the watchmen all the air are filling,
arise, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
'The hour has come!' we hear them saying,
'where are ye all, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight,
raise high your torches bright!'
The wedding song swells loud and strong:
go forth and join the festal throng.
(New English Hymnal, 16, Philipp Nicolai 1556-1608, tr R C Burkett 1864-1935)
That is a stirring and inspiring hymn.
It envisions the Church as the bride (cf Ephesians 5:22-33), and her children, the baptised, as the Bridesmaids who hear the call of the watchmen, those prophets who are the lookouts, who see and point out the coming Bridegroom, who is Christ himself.
That evokes a vision of the Book of Revelation:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7.9)
There is the Church, in all her diversity living and departed, saints and martyrs, gathered around the Bridegroom, the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ; the Church witnesses to the light.
The hour has come! At the wedding feast at Cana Jesus tells his Blessed Mother, my hour has not yet come, but now the hour is here, the Bridegroom comes, bringing the wine of the kingdom.
So we bridesmaids then raise are torches, our lanterns filled with oil, praising the Lord and join the festal throng of the Church throughout the ages to the wedding banquet.
What a glorious and rich vision that is!
It is lovely to contemplate that, as Jesus says as he begins the parable, ‘the kingdom of heaven will be like this’.
But that is also what makes it an uncomfortable parable to hear.
‘The kingdom of heaven will be like this’.
If so, the kingdom of heaven challenges us because the foolish bridesmaids were not ready and, despite having the extra time granted to them - the bridegroom was late - they did not gain admission to the banquet.
This sits ill at ease with contemporary sensibilities around inclusion and is hard to hear, surely, we assume, everyone will be admitted to the kingdom of heaven?
This parable contains invitation to all, in that way it is thoroughly inclusive; but it also contains judgement: not everyone gets in to the banquet.
Likewise it seems unfair, but all ten bridesmaids were similarly equipped.
They had their lanterns and no one was denied oil – it is that the foolish bridesmaids just didn’t replenish the oil that was there for them.
This is a theme of some of the parables in St Matthew’s gospel: the foolish rule themselves out of attending the banquet, like the man who thought he could be admitted to another wedding banquet without the garment the guests wear.
Sop this parable is about openness to grace: grace is the oil that fills the lanterns of our faith as an unmerited and boundless gift to us.
We don’t enter the banquet on our own terms: conversion of life, vigilant expectation is part and parcel of being a follower of Christ the Bridegroom.
What’s then the measure of the wise bridesmaid-disciple?
It could be summed up like this: wake up; shine out; come in.
In our discipleship we will get drowsy, we will doze off: that speaks of our human frailty and sinfulness.
Whilst we will doze off, the wise bridesmaid will wake up ready and prepared: ‘Wake, O wake!’.
As St Paul writes in his letter to the Romans:
…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armour of light; (Romans 13.11-12)
The hour is here.
As we've seen, at another wedding feast, the one at Cana, Jesus said to his Blessed Mother ‘my hour has not yet come’. Then to the woman at the well, ‘the hour is coming’ (John 4.21,23; cf also 5.25,28), then as he looks to his Passion, ‘the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’ (John 12.27) and then at the last supper ‘Father, the hour has come’ (John 17.1).
The hour is here! Wake up.
And then shine out.
What is the newly baptised person told as they are handed a candle lit from the Paschal Candle of Easter?
‘Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.
We are to be the lamp that bears the light of Christ.
The oil that replenishes us is the grace of Christ; in this way we share the life of the Church and inhabit the heavenly city.
This is the mystery of what the vision of Revelation describes: ‘And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband’. (Revelation 21.2)
Wake up; shine out and, now, come in.
Finally let us come to the banquet now -
vigilant, expectant and prepared - for in this banquet of the Eucharist, we
have a foretaste of the banquet of heaven, we replenish the lamps of our lives
with the Bread of Life and Wine of the Kingdom, Christ’s body and blood, and we
grow in wisdom.
Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage banquet of the Lamb.