A bit of background to our parable in today’s gospel.
The context is a typical Jewish wedding at the time of Jesus. What would usually happen would be that the bride and groom would first go through a marriage ceremony to legally tie the knot, as we say. But then, without more ado, before any wedding reception, the bridegroom would go back to his father’s house, and there proceed to build an extension for he and his wife to live in. You can imagine the fever of desire and impatience that would be driving on any newly-married husband, and how that might make him cut a few corners in the construction so he could go and get his wife asap. Which is why only his father would have the final say as to when the extension was finished and the son could go back and collect his bride.
When the father eventually gave the OK, you can imagine that the son would not wait to make an appointment to meet up with his wife at some time in the future. No, he would rush off straightaway, whatever the time was, even if it were at midnight. He would expect his wedding attendants, the bridesmaids in this story, to be ready to welcome him and escort him to his bride’s parents home, where his wife would have been waiting all this time, with the same fervor of desire and impatience, and together they would go off to the wedding reception, accompanied by the bridesmaids with their lamps.
That is the background to our parable, which would have been well understood and appreciated by Jesus’ disciples, all of them Jews. But that is only the background to the parable. The real point of the parable is to be found in the attitude and behavior of the bridesmaids, and their readiness or lack of it, to receive the bridegroom when he returned for his bride . In the Jewish culture, the mere mention of a “marriage feast” or “wedding banquet” would turn people’s thoughts automatically to the idea of life in heaven, which is often described in Jewish Scriptures in such terms, as a banquet or a feast. Since most everyone likes the thought of eating and drinking to your heart’s content, it is pretty smart of God, don’t you think, to describe heaven in such terms!! The New Testament follows on from the Old Testament in describing heaven along the same lines, except now that the “bridegroom” is Jesus, and the “bride” is his Church, you and I. It is a datum of our faith that Jesus is coming at the end of time, to collect his bride, and bring her to his heavenly Father’s house to live with him forever.
This is why Jesus, in speaking to his disciples, before his death, said:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling-places. I go to prepare a place for you and I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.”John 14: 1-3
This gospel passage is a favorite for those who are choosing readings for a funeral of a loved one, and I can readily believe that it provides a lot of consolation to them in the midst of their grief, to know that their loved one is now in the arms of Jesus, and no doubt working with Him to prepare places for the members of the family who are still alive.
But to return to the parable. What about these bridesmaids, who are they and what is this oil that they are supposed to have in their lamps ready for when the bridegroom returns for his bride? Well, those bridesmaids are us, you and I. We are the bride, and we are also the bridesmaids. Don’t try to work that one out, it is just a story after all, and we must focus on the real point of the story , which is the behavior and mindset of these particular bridesmaids. First of all, they are part of the wedding procession, they are invited to the wedding reception, they are expected to be ready for it, and there really is no excuse for the “foolish” ones among them, to let their oil supply run out. The consequences for them in doing so are disastrous. They will be locked out of the wedding reception, and all that work buying the new dress and doing their hair and make-up is wasted, due totheir own lack of foresight and laziness.
When we remember that the real context of the parable is being prepared to enter into heaven, as Jesus tells us right at the beginning, then we have to ask “what is this “oil” we should have ready for when Jesus returns? Different biblical scholars have different interpretations. Some say the oil represents faith, others prayer, others good works, others repentance. Perhaps it is all of those things, and more. The important point to hold onto is that Jesus will be coming for us at some moment in time, either at the end of the world, or , if we die before that, then at the moment of our death. It is our death, not someone else’s, and we are responsible for our state of preparedness for this moment, not someone else. If we allow the pace and demands of our life here on earth to distract us away from remembering that Jesus will be coming for us, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
The Church reserves this time of the year, when the death of nature speaks loudly to us of the death of all things and the end of time, to give us readings such as this gospel and our second reading from St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians today , which speaks to us of Christ returning at the end of time to take us to be with him forever in heaven . The end of this month is also the beginning of the season of Advent. Most of the world sees Advent as a preparation to celebrate Christmas, and Christ’s first coming into the world. All the Advent calendars finish with that event.
But the Church sees Advent, which means literally “the Coming” as a reminder that Christ will come again, at the end of time. (So our Memorial Acclamation…”We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection, until you come again”). So, while it is fine for us to enter into the celebration of the Christmas season, we nevertheless are meant to keep our spiritual senses alert and vigilant for the return of Christ to bring us to his heavenly home as his “bride.” This keeping alert and vigilant is what true wisdom is about, according to our first reading today. It is foolishness to forget all about the truth that this world of ours is destined by God to come to an end at some point in time, we don’t know when, and if we have failed to keep that in mind and have forsaken our Christian faith and practice, we face the very real possibility that we will find the gates of heaven shut against us.
Since we are marking Remembrance Sunday this weekend, and thinking of those who gave their lives to save our freedoms, it is worth bearing in mind that , during the world wars, it was considered a capital offence to desert from one’s post, and one could be shot for that desertion. Let us pray that we will not be found absent without leave from our posts when Christ returns at the end of time , and face exclusion from heaven. Jesus is the bridegroom who expects us to be ready and waiting when he comes again . Let us not disappoint him.