Lamps, Light and Love
[Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were sensible: the foolish ones did take their lamps, but they brought no oil, whereas the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The bridegroom was late, and they all grew drowsy and fell asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, "The bridegroom is here! Go out and meet him." At this, all those bridesmaids woke up and trimmed their lamps, and the foolish ones said to the sensible ones, "Give us some of your oil: our lamps are going out". But they replied, "There may not be enough for us and for you; you had better go to those who sell it and buy some for yourselves". They had gone off to buy it when the bridegroom arrived. Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall and the door was closed. The other bridesmaids arrived later. "Lord, Lord," they said "open the door for us." But he replied, "I tell you solemnly, I do not know you". So stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.] (Matthew 25:1-13)
The context of this parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (literally, Virgins) is foreign to our marriage customs today. Back then, after the marriage betrothal, the bridegroom would leave the bride with her father, and return to his father’s house to prepare a home for her. When all was ready, he would then triumphantly return to claim with his bride. The young unmarried bridesmaids would go out to greet and usher him in, and the community would celebrate the union. This is my limited understanding of that ancient ritual. The following is my imaginings of what our Lord’s parable might mean for us today.
Most importantly, it is a love story –of our God who frames the culmination of life in Spousal Love. That the Creator, of all that is, joins himself to us in the intimacy of a marriage union, can only be mystery to which everything else in the story points to. As in all love stories, happiness is revealed against the contrast of tragedy. Here, the Faithful are rewarded with Eternal Joy, while those who did not persevere to the end, were unable to pass through Judgment’s Door.
This entire chapter is in fact, about the Great Judgment waiting to expose the film of our lives. It is inevitable, inescapable, and there are no do-overs. All humanity shares in the same drama: gifted with Life, destined for Love, we must struggle to accept or reject our Divine Purpose. This opening parable, I believe, speaks to this Judgment, to what is required of us, and to what will insure our success.
First, let us acknowledge that all ten bridesmaids set out to meet the Bridegroom. Some were wise and some were foolish, but all had made the commitment to seek and join him; all of them discerned their Divine Purpose; all began the journey. They were Virgins, they were saving themselves for the Husband of Their Dream; they were unattached, free to throw themselves without distractions into their calling. And, if we were allowed to flesh out the details of this story, most certainly, there might be many other players beside the Ten: those who spurned the invitation to greet the Bridegroom; those who were not saving themselves for the Other, who only sought to please themselves; those who were beyond foolish, who were already Lost.
The Ten, were a privileged lot. They found their Purpose, their Meaning in Life. They were a Consecrated People; set aside to bear light on the Light of Lights; to usher in the Source of all Light and join with him in Love. So it was that all on the journey carried a Lamp Burning.
What can this all mean? To be found with our light burning brightly is mission critical. We will either pass or fail. There is no second chance. This is our common destiny, our unavoidable test. That it will happen is certain, but when is never known.
The lamp’s Light is the Burning Fire of Love. But, it is not for illuminating the path, ‘going as we do by faith and not by sight’ (2COR 5:7), for, “anyone who loves his brother is living in the light and need not be afraid of stumbling’ (1JN 2:10). Rather, our Light, our Love, is to be a Sign: that we may be identified; that the Bridegroom will not say of us, “I do not know you." For, ‘everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.’ (1John 4:7). Love is the reason for breath -what brings us into Eternal Light.
Oil must burn before it becomes Light, and we must die before we can love. The lamps then, are where Oil is sacrificed to become Light. If light is the product of something consumed, then the lamps are Occasions of Love -where Self is sacrificed; where Selfish Desire is consumed by Grace; where Will submits to Obedience. To carry a lamp is to be a Living Yes -to a God who only asks for Love. To carry a lamp is to give witness -to be a Reflection of our Creator; to be a consecrated Vessel of Love.
The Oil is the fuel, the source, the Grace which ignites into Love. It is the essence of our Living Yes, yet it comes not of our self, but of God –it is, in Truth, God himself. That is why it is not our possession, to give away to one who has not. It can only be attained through surrender. The Oil is the Spirit of God, whose image we become in Love. It is Mystery manifested; the Incarnate becoming carnate, and the carnate becoming Divine. It is the Quintessence of Grace.
All of the Ten began with their lamps full of Oil, but only the sensible ones took flasks of oil. They understood more would be demanded, that the night would take them where they could go no longer, where their youth would be humbled, their exuberance shriveled, where a blood moon would cast them as a shadow of the Cross. Only the wise ones readied themselves for the midnight hour: where weariness closes eyes to Hope; where inner strength runs dry, and Darkness erases the memory of Sun. They knew that only ‘Those who were ready went in with him to the wedding hall…’
It was, in this Midnight Hour, that the Foolish Five left their watch. Faith blinked within. Fear of Emptiness drove them away -just inches from journey’s end. It was also, in this Midnight Hour, that the Faithful Five dipped into their flasks of oil. With flames burning bright, they shook off the Darkness and greeted the Bridegroom. Radiant with Joy, the Night became a New Day.And what might be these Saving flasks of oil in our lives? We cannot persevere in Love without Faith and Hope. So, that which Anchors us in these virtues becomes our flasks of oil: Feeding on the Body and Blood of Christ; daily Prayer and Scripture; Christian Community -whatever calls us into Truth will root us in the Promises of God, where Fear and Darkness cannot coexist with the Light of Love. Faith and Hope then, ever renewed, ever regenerated by Truth, guarantees that we will be found in Love; that with our Light burning brightly, we will be Recognized, and the Door will be opened unto us.