The texts chosen for the two Sundays between the feasts of All Saints and Christ the King mark a noticeable change in gear in our scheme of scripture readings. This Sunday we are presented with the Parable of the Bridesmaids, next week we look at the Parable of the Talents and then on the Feast of Christ the King we hear Christ’s teaching about the End of the World.
In the Church of England these three Sundays are known as the Kingdom Season and the liturgical colour red is used. I think it is good for them to draw attention to the change of emphasis in this way.
We are at the very end of the liturgical year; we have worked our way through the teaching and miracles of Jesus and the great events of the incarnation and salvation at Christmas and Easter and now as we come to the end of the year and it is appropriate for us to take a look at the end times. The readings are very salutary; they remind us to be on our guard, to have our priorities right, to expect to be called to face God at any time.
However, the parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids while outwardly seeming to conform to the marriage customs of the Jews does have some puzzling elements. For example, the extraordinary lateness of the Bridegroom, the improvidence of the Bridesmaids who had insufficient oil; the unlikeliness of them being able to find a shop open where they could buy oil at that hour; the contravention of hospitality in the closing of the door to the wedding hall and the fact that the wise Bridesmaids are not reproved for failing to share their oil.
All these improbable elements make the story a real curiosity and indeed there are other strange elements. Which house is the Groom entering? If these are the Bridesmaids why are they accompanying the Groom? And where is the Bride anyway?
The Bridegroom is clearly Christ. He even uses this title of himself in several other places in the Gospels, for example when John’s disciples ask why Jesus’ disciples don’t fast he replies, ‘Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would not even think of mourning while he is still with them’.
There are some elements in the story that seem to speak to the situation of the early Church and one of these is surely the delay in the arrival of the Bridegroom. Many of the Early Christians expected Christ to return fairly soon but when his second coming seemed to be continually postponed they began to look for explanations. Perhaps the detail of the Groom’s delay is an attempt to come to terms with this difficulty.
At 2000 years distance this is not a problem for us; but maybe we have the contrary problem that we don’t expect the coming of the Kingdom at all, perhaps our temptation is to believe that it is somehow to be permanently delayed. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that we can do what we like now and leave it till later in life to repent and embrace the Gospel.
Anyway, how do we make sense of all these various problems I’ve been raising about this story? Well having identified the Bridegroom as Christ, then the next step is surely to identify ourselves with the Bridesmaids who await him.
The oil in the lamp must represent our good deeds, the fruits of our Christian life; and this oil feeds the lamp which sheds the light enabling Christ to identify us and lead us into the wedding feast which is the Kingdom.
But what about the foolish bridesmaids and the refusal of the wise ones to share their oil with them? Superficially this seems to be an act of meanness on the part of the wise bridesmaids. But in reality it is not so because no one can rely on the good deeds or holiness of others to obtain entry to the Kingdom. To stick with the analogy we each must have our own oil.
And neither can we buy it; not in the middle of the night nor at any other time. We must produce our own oil. We are each responsible for ourselves and it is the choices that we make in life that demonstrate our fitness for the Kingdom or not.
The foolish bridesmaids totally misunderstand this and when they come knocking on the door it is not through malice that the Bridegroom does not admit them. Because they do not grasp the true nature of the Kingdom they are not ready to enter it.
The foolish believe that you can look outside yourself to find the Key to the Kingdom but they are wrong, the wherewithal to enter the Kingdom can only be found within yourself. The foolish ones need to get in touch with themselves, they need to begin to live the spiritual life, they need to realise that the Kingdom of God is within them.
At the end of the Church’s liturgical year when we are encouraged to focus on the end times we need to think deeply about these things. We need to decide which side of the fence we are on. We need to accept responsibility for our own lives and realise that the only true path in life is the path of holiness.
It is in understanding this and in deciding to devote ourselves wholeheartedly to following Christ that will make the decisive difference in where we will spend eternity.
As Christians we have been given a great advantage in life; God has planted in us the gift of faith, he has revealed himself to us, he has shown us the depth of his love. Our task is to reciprocate that love. It is to follow his Gospel, it is to live our lives in union with him, it is to radiate his light and love to those around us.
Only by doing this will we ourselves become fully prepared to meet Christ—and, as with those wise Bridesmaids, we will be able to recognise him and he will be able to recognise us.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket