I wonder how many of you stayed up to midnight – or beyond – to listen to the American Presidential Election broadcast? I began writing this sermon during that Tuesday afternoon when it seemed that Obama was out there as a clear favourite with poor John McCain dragging way behind. And so it proved. What interested me was the way both candidates were preparing massive parties for the end of the process. But, clearly, one party would be more of a wake than a celebration. Yet both had to make the preparations – it would look very bad if you didn’t prepare for a win and who would want to be caught not prepared if you did!
Today’s gospel is, of course, all about preparedness. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids (or virgins in other translations) speaks to all who hear it and has given rise to countless expressions in art, poetry and song. There’s a very graphic watercolour in Tate Britain, for example, by William Blake showing the five foolish women cowering before the wise ones as they realise they’re not going to get any oil for their lamps from these virtuous ladies. It all seems so unfair!
But, hang on; shouldn’t Jesus have created a parable to illustrate how those with enough share what they had with the less fortunate? Isn’t that what Christianity is all about? And that final response from the Bridegroom, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” leaves us with a sense of exclusion rather than inclusion.
At this point I must speculate. Although I know little of first-century Palestinian culture, common sense tells me that this last feature of Jesus' story was probably meant to make his listeners react. To be excluded from a wedding would have been deeply shocking – so why did Jesus make the point? Well, once again, it’s probably aimed at the Jewish hierarchy and it can be understood as an attack on them – the foolish bridesmaids who will be excluded from the coming Kingdom of God.
The parable is told to the disciples as a wake-up call. Who will keep their lamps lit for the great event? Are they going to keep the eye of their heart fixed on the bridegroom? Are they seeking to serve him in their daily life? And so it is also aimed at us. Do we open yourselves to him in prayer each day and look out for him in the needs of others? Do we seek to put our faith into practice? Or are we getting a bit sleepy? “It doesn’t matter if I don’t come to Mass this week.” “I used to make my confession, but does it really matter?” “I’d like to make a retreat, but haven’t got round to it yet.” “I keep meaning to read the bible and get hold of a Daily Missal, but …”
There are so many excuses we can make for not keeping our Christian faith alert and active both spiritually and practically.
Today, of course, is also Remembrance Sunday; the day when we are mindful of all who have given their lives in fighting for their country and, at the end of Mass, we shall lay our wreath at the War Memorial.
But we also remember those whose lives are in danger, now. In particular we remember those serving in Afghanistan and Iraq who cannot afford to be like those foolish bridesmaids. Rather, they have to stay awake, keep alert and be prepared. We remember them, too.
One of the images used for Christians is that of the ‘Soldiers of Christ’. The great 18th century hymn writer, Charles Wesley, wrote one of the most well-known hymns using this image:
Soldiers of Christ, arise,
and put your armour on,
strong in the strength which God supplies
through his eternal Son;
To keep your armour bright,
attend with constant care,
Still walking in your Captain’s sight,
and watching unto prayer.
Some, of course, may find such military imagery jarring. But whatever imagery helps we need to be reminded to keep awake, stay alert and be prepared for the coming of the Lord.
Many years ago I read C. S. Lewis’ epic story of ‘The Last Battle’, the seventh and final novel in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’. You may know the story. In its concluding chapters all those who have ever lived pass before Aslan after the final battle of good and evil. With the end of the Narnia saga, Aslan invites all who would, to follow him into his own land. "Come farther in! Come farther up!" His call reverberates in the minds and hearts all who have come to recognize the true nature of Aslan and they pass into a re-created Narnia: others simply don’t ‘see’ Aslan, they don’t recognise him and they pass into darkness.
This parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is a warning to all of us because Jesus knows that there will be an end and a final judgement. These weeks leading up to Advent all focus into that reality and chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s gospel, from which we are reading, present the Church with parable after parable dealing with the end times. They’re all about being prepared and, in essence, show that our good works do matter to God.
Today we can at least take heart from the fact that both the wise and the foolish women fell asleep as they waited for the long overdue bridegroom, but there is a critical difference between the two. The Wise ones kept a reserve of oil ready for the time when the Bridegroom came: the foolish ones didn’t. No forward planning, especially as there’s no 24 hr Tesco round the corner! It’s a parable that’s meant to make us take note and reflect on how we can stay prepared for the coming of Jesus, the eternal Bridegroom. And our Faith proclaims he is just that, our lover and our intimate who will come, in time.
And it is our hope in his coming and in the new age that will dawn that needs to occupy our attention. So, perhaps that one word, ‘hope’, is something we can take from today’s readings. The wise person is filled with hope in the future: the foolish person lives only for the day. The Jews personified Wisdom as a Bride all could seek: Jesus, our Bridegroom, is that personification of Holy Wisdom and to be ready for his coming into our lives is to seek to seek wisdom.
And that hope we have is reflected by St. Paul as he writes to the Thessalonians those encouraging words about the Coming of Christ at the end times:
‘For the Lord himself, with a cry of command,
with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet,
will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up in the clouds together with them
to meet the Lord in the air;
and so we will be with the Lord for ever.’
Amen, let it be so.