It was a hot summer afternoon and the little church where I served as the assistant curate was packed with people wearing their summer best. The groom and I were patiently waiting in the sacristy while the best man and the groomsmen were out exploring the cemetery. Time that afternoon seemed to have come to a standstill while we waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. The appointed time of the wedding came and went and the groom started to pace back and forth in the little sacristy. We waited 5, 10, 15 minutes and there was no sign of the bride. Even after 20 and 25 minutes there was still no sign of her. Finally, finally, finally half an hour after the wedding was to begin a car pulled up in front of the church and out jumped one of the bridesmaids. Her hair was immaculate, but she was wearing jeans and a tee shirt. She dashed into the sacristy and explained to the poor groom, now beside himself with anxiety, that the bridal party had only just returned from the hair dressers and the bride was only now beginning to get dressed. She’d be at least another half hour if not longer we were told. With that the bridesmaid dashed back to her car and sped off to continue her preparations. The groom collapsed into a chair and I went out into the church to release the congregation from captivity and send them out to explore the cemetery. Finally, more than an hour after we were to begin, the bridal party, with the bride in tow, arrived; the congregation took their places once more; and the groom, who by then had recovered some of his composure, and I headed out of the sacristy and into the church to begin.
If you ask anyone, stories like this are a dime a dozen. It seems nothing has changed. But this time, in today’s gospel it is not the bride who is delayed, but the bridegroom, and he is not simply an hour late, but seemingly hours late for “at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’”1 But by this time, not only must the bridesmaids be roused from their sleep, they also need to get ready for the procession which will accompany the bride and groom to the banquet where the wedding and feast will take place. Unfortunately, as we know only too well, some of the bridesmaids are not fully prepared and miss the wedding and are excluded from the feast altogether.
All of us have been to, or been involved with, enough weddings to know that neither my story, not the story Jesus tells are all that unusual. Things happen, sometimes funny things, sometime eye rolling things, sometimes unfortunate and inexplicable things happen at weddings. What is unfortunate is that for some reason the bridegroom is delayed. What is funny is that the bridesmaids fall asleep. What is problematic is that some of the bridesmaids don’t have enough oil. What is shocking however, and what shocks us, and would have shocked Jesus original audience is the reaction of the bridegroom when the bridesmaids finally arrive at the banquet: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”2
These five bridesmaids were locked out of the wedding banquet, not because they had fallen asleep as we are told in this story, or because they had refused the original invitation; or because they were not wearing the proper attire,3 but because they were unprepared to fulfill their responsibilities. They hadn’t taken into account that they might have to wait a long time for the festivities to begin. And that was a real problem for the early Christians. The wait for the Bridegroom’s return was much longer than they had imagined.
Within its context this story about the unprepared bridesmaids is not simply a story of wedding preparations gone wrong. Both before and after this story Jesus speaks of the “unexpected hour” when the Son of Man will return and admonishes his audience to “keep awake”. As we know these are Advent themes and before long we will once again be plunged into Advent, that season of waiting and preparation for the coming of Christ in time as the babe of Bethlehem and at the end of time as Judge and Redeemer of the world. Like those bridesmaids, we too are waiting for the arrival of the much delayed Bridegroom who will come when we least expect it, are least prepared for it, and perhaps even sound asleep.
Like those early Christians who were caught off guard by the long wait for Jesus’ return, we too have been called to wait, and unlike some, it has never been part of our tradition to speculate when the wait will be over. Instead we wait, and sometimes we fall asleep. But are we prepared? Are we prepared for the delay, or will Jesus eventual return at the end of time in the Second Advent catch us completely by surprise and totally unprepared? Will our lamps be ready to burn long into the night, or are they sputtering out even now? But more to the point, how do we know that our lamps are burning brightly or that our oil in nearly spent? How do we know that we have enough oil to last long into the night while we sit, and watch and even sleep while we wait for his arrival? How will we ensure that we too will not be excluded from the banquet, and that the door will not be shut in our faces and that when we knock, the Bridegroom not know us?
Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, just at the end of the Beatitudes, Jesus reminds us that we in fact are the lamps we carry in expectation of the Lord’s return, for he tells us that:
‘You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden.
No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the
lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your
light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give
glory to your Father in heaven.4
It is with the lamp of our lives lived well that we will herald the coming of the Lord when he returns as the Bridegroom at the end of time. It is by the lamp of our lives burning brightly that the Bridegroom will recognize us and welcome us into the eternal wedding banquet.
So how brightly do your lamps burn? How brightly does your life shine? How prepared are you with oil for a wait long into the night? Will you be ready when the Bridegroom comes at last?
Once again Jesus gives us a clue as to how our lives might burn brightly as we await the coming of the Lord. A few verses later in Matthew’s gospel, after the story of the unprepared bridesmaids, Jesus tells us how we might prepare ourselves for his coming:
“…for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave
me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was
naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I
was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him,
“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty
and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a
stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when
was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king
will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of
these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” 5
It has been a long wait, and the Bridegroom is much delayed. But when he does come at last will he find the lamp of your life burning brightly? Will he find you as one of those whose flask of oil is full? Will he find you as one prepared, and anxious, and waiting, even if sleepily, for his arrival? Will you be one of those lighting his way through the darkened streets into the eternal wedding banquet? Or will the door be shut to you and will he say: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”6
In today’s gospel Jesus tells a story not about some nameless wedding attendants, but a story about us. It is a story about us and whether or not we will be prepared to meet him when he comes at the end of time. It is a story about us and how brightly the lamps of our lives are burning. So wake up. It is midnight. The Bridegroom is coming so let the lamp of your life “shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”7
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