“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 wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.”
This past Sunday morning we heard Jesus speak another of his enigmatic parables of the Kingdom, this one from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids. My mother is a tailor, specializing in wedding gowns, so Jesus’ use of wedding imagery always reminds me of the humanity on display around marriages. Growing up, I crossed paths with many wedding parties. Brides, grooms, groomsmen, parents, and yes, bridesmaids. While I am sure very few of us have ever needed to take oil lamps to an evening vigil as the groom made his way to the home of the bride, we nonetheless know something about weddings and marriages in our own time and place.
As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
Friends, I don’t think it is a stretch to say that we know this feeling of delay. In the midst of social division, pandemic, and so much more, it really does look like the bridegroom is delayed. It is easy to feel like the Kingdom is impossibly far off. We may fear that we have, like the foolish bridesmaids, forgotten to bring enough oil. The sun set hours ago, but the bridegroom still isn’t here. Do we have enough oil to keep our lamps burning much longer? With the psalmist we pray, “How long, O Lord?”
Yet the searching, patient wisdom of God that became flesh in Jesus waits at the gate of our hearts to teach us, oil flask in hand, in times precisely like this one. I warmly invite you to pray with this this parable from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew as you move through the rest of your week. The imagery is mundane and domestic, like a drowsy delay and a panicked errand for overlooked supplies. At the same time, it is textured and multifaceted, like the fine embroidery of a hand-stitched wedding gown or the warm glow and fragrant aroma of a lit oil lamp. Much like Jesus himself, the words he shares participate in both the richness of heaven and the dysfunction and messiness of human life, welcoming us to still ourselves and let both realities mingle with each other in unexpected ways.
Consider the readiness the wise bridesmaids. They don’t show any nervousness about the bridegroom’s arrival—they fall asleep like the foolish bridesmaids. They don’t read the horizon for signs of his coming, abandon their lamps, or make speculations about his progress and their predicament. They instead rest in the knowledge of their duty, ready to perform it no matter the hour. Yet they aren’t cynical or pessimistic as a result. The virtue of their readiness is hope. They trust that the bridegroom will arrive. But their wisdom allows for the fact that the desired event may not happen as expected or at their convenience. Unlike the five foolish bridesmaids, they don’t anticipate that things will necessarily go their way. Jesus tells us they wait, prepared to light their lamps whenever the moment comes.
It may feel difficult or impossible to live in a wise anticipation of the Kingdom, especially when the Kingdom seems delayed. But Jesus speaks to each of us at this time, inviting us to learn a hopeful anticipation, fragrant with the oil of our baptism, mysteriously domestic and familiar, yet aglow with the lights of hope, love, and charity.
As this season of trial and difficulty continues, I pray with gratitude for you, our friends and colleagues. Like a sweet-smelling oil, your witness and fellowship have helped keep the lamp of hope burning within me. The wisdom of God is at work, friends. And she works to make us bright with a wise anticipation.
Peace to you,
Br. Sean SSJE
This morning Jesus speaks to us of a heavenly wisdom, personified in a group of (rather human sounding) women before a (rather human sounding) wedding. I admit I am always a little startled when Jesus uses wedding imagery to illustrate the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. Yet he does so with notable frequency. For his contemporaries, as for us, there is a familiarity here.
“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 wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’”
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.’
Scripture reminds us that now, as ever, we human beings continually struggle to know and to bear God to the world in the midst of whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. This was clearly the case for Job before his divine inquisition, but I suspect it is true for almost every human being we meet in scripture, from Abraham to Mary and beyond. It is certainly true for me, and I’ll venture a guess that from time to time it might be for you, too.
There is a litany of possible reasons for this trans-human struggle to know and relate to the profundity of the divine nature, but of significance (at least for me) have been the kinds of images and pictures we use for God. Intellectually I understand that these images are all utterly contingent, incomplete, mere shadows of the reality to which I ought to fix my gaze. Yet deep in the hiddenness of my heart I very easily become attached to these images and pictures—many of which often turn out (upon closer inspection) to be reflections of my own private desires and ambitions. Images of a god who will protect me from disaster, from pain, from disappointment, from failure. A god who conforms to my designs.
The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
One of the many gems of our liturgical space here at the monastery is the marble statue of the young Mary of Nazareth—whose nativity the church remembers today—and her new child, the infant Jesus. As I prepared for today’s celebration, the image of this statue kept returning to me, set against the memory of an episode it doubtless provoked one spring day shortly after I was clothed as a novice. Two young men entered the chapel about fifteen minutes into the Noon Office. During the time of intercession one of them not so inconspicuously asked, “Is there a Bible in this place? Where’s the Bible?” As we began the retiring procession following the Office, the two leapt to their appointed task: “We have a message from the Spirit,” one began as they attempted to call us wayward Episcopalians back from the thralls of idolatry, and surrender (what they mistook for) pagan practice and charism. “Mary’s not gonna save you,” one of them remarked.
This episode remained with me for some time because it revealed a set of pretty common misconceptions about the esteem and reverence with which the church holds Mary of Nazareth, whom the Greek Church calls Theotokos, or “God-bearer.” Without a window into the significance of Mary, it is easy to mistake her for a mere transposition of some pagan fertility goddess, the ancient fém-divine baptized and chastened. With such a window curtained, an image of Mary with the child Jesus is easily read as an idol, rather than an icon into a profound mystery.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. Whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed.
As a monk I cannot deny Paul’s wisdom. Within the dance of a monastic community, the challenges of obedience to one’s superiors come with many unexpected and needful graces. Much of life in community is spent learning to receive the gifts at hand when we do not get our way. But we do not all live within the precincts of a vowed community, and too frequently have these words of Paul been used to lend and air of divine approval to otherwise illegitimate and abusive forms of state power. Colonialism, chattel slavery, the convulsions of the twentieth century, and bold abuses of contemporary leadership, all accompanied by cries of human beings battered at the hands of nations, ring out a warning: be careful not to mistake coercive power for God’s power. For it is Christ—not a Caesar, or an empire, or a nation—who is the Lord of History.
While civil authority’s claim to coercive power rests on an aspiration to do justice and preserve order, this same authority is always liable to abuse and malformation. Civil authorities do not in fact always punish evil behavior and reward good. Sometimes, with great boldness, civil authority actively rewards evil and punishes good. And so a superficial reading of this text will at best leave us sadly distant from a vengeful and coercive God, and at worst lend license to unspeakable crimes.
It is probably strange to hear this morning’s gospel text in light of the current state of our world. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Scenes of evangelism may be a challenge for us all right now. Rather than being sent out into the world, we find ourselves compelled to remain at home and distance ourselves from those we might otherwise wish to serve, up close and in person. We are not presently going, there are no homes into which we might safely venture, no opportunities for face to face discussion, study, or prayer.
Yet we still hear Jesus’s call, even in the midst of a crisis that would see us shrink back and retreat from the world to which we have been called to bring God’s love. Go.
Thankfully various technologies—especially the internet—have afforded us valuable ways to overcome the sharpness of our physical separation from one another. Although I count myself among the world’s stubborn luddites, I cannot imagine rising to meet the present moment without the advantages of our own community’s presence on social media and other web interfaces. Much like those Christians of the fifteenth century, who experienced for the first time a new kind of evangelistic media (the printing press), we have heretofore unexplored worlds of potential set before us.
For which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk?’
I do not really know, Jesus. That is the challenge of our walk of faith, is it not? Forgiveness. To arise, to walk, knowing we are forgiven. It is all too easy a thing to say, ‘I forgive you.’ But I think all of us know that the manifestation of those words in a lived, shared life can feel as daunting and impossible as trying to cure paralysis with a speech act. It is easier to say, ‘I forgive you.’ It is harder to live the sacrifices required of what is said.
The scribes in this morning’s gospel—however swayed by ‘even thinking’ in their hearts—are nonetheless right: true forgiveness—forgiveness of sins, forgiveness of human disintegration—is the property of the divine. It is priceless. It has the power to bring life out of death. But of course the scribes don’t quite see what is in front of them.
Therein lies the miracle of today’s gospel. Yes, a paralytic man regained authority over his limbs, but this is not what amazes the crowds, and it is not what should amaze us. For the healing of the paralyzed man is merely the sign of something much more significant. As with all of Jesus’ miracles, I often have to remind myself that the sign is not itself the thing signified.
I must confess that the gospel we meet this morning is not an easy one. There is good news for us here, but it is not a simple news. It is a news that will fortify us, but to my fallen palette it tastes a bit like bile going down.
In 1937, just over 80 years ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer published his now classic text, The Cost of Discipleship (or, in the original German, simply, Nachfolge). His text opens with a harsh admonition, “Billige Gnade ist der Todfeinde unsere Kirche”—“Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church.” Bonhoeffer wrote these words to a church assailed by the claims of a dangerous ideology. An ideology that sought an illusory national purity. An ideology that marked one group as “fully human” while deporting, enslaving, and exterminating those groups deemed “less than human.” In the blink of an eye, the Nazi Party had leveraged itself into a fascist dictatorship. His church, Bonhoeffer worried, was at risk of missing the costly call of God, preferring instead billige Gnade, cheap grace that justified not sinners but sin itself.
Bonhoeffer found himself attempting to minister to communities who struggled to sense the cost of their allegiance to Jesus Christ—afraid to undertake the sacred labor of seeking Christ ready and waiting in their neighbors, enemies, and scapegoats. To preach the Gospel became an act of treason against a society that sought to deform and devalue the “teure Gnade,” the “costly grace” that comes with following Jesus Christ—the life-giving grace that only comes from the vulnerability of the cross. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, calls the church always beyond the narrow horizons of its own self-interest. Costly grace, Bonhoeffer knew, makes no room for a spirituality that would simply treat God as a means to an end—even if that end is peace.
One of the things that has struck me continually since coming to the Monastery is the way in which narrative is so essential to our lives together. We all tell stories about ourselves to help us find meaning and significance, to find out who we are. The rich matrix of narrative allows us to find the multi-dimensional tapestry that unfolds within the confines of time and place, of necessity and contingency. Although our poverty means we are always limited in our knowledge and understanding, stories (if we let them do their work and tell them honestly) have a way of lifting our gaze out of and above the daily ooze of chronological time. In a sense, stories give us brief tastes of God’s time, Kairos time. This is especially true when we begin to allow the threads of a story larger than our own to weave their way into a tapestry we thought we had begun on our own.
O God, the King of glory, you have exalted your only Son Jesus Christ with great triumph to your kingdom in heaven: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before. —Collect for the Seventh Sunday of Easter
One of the graces of this season spent in quarantine has been the lectionary’s course of readings through St. Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. The narrative is at once dense and frenetic, while also a source of great comfort. We read of disciples not so different from you and me. People who faced gargantuan challenges and struggled with the solid weight of human poverty, weakness, and finitude—of going to bed each night completely and helplessly ignorant of any of the possibilities that God might give with the sun’s rise. I can only fantasize about the tenor of the prayers that Jesus’ little community must have prayed in the days between Ascension and Pentecost.
We know the rest of the story, and perhaps that can tempt us to presumption. It is easy for us to overlook the yawning jaws of despair that likely followed at the heels of Jesus’ followers after his ascension, hungry for their fear. Tempting them to rely on themselves. Begging them to deny God’s faithfulness. Yes, we know the rest of the story, but even the gift of hindsight is just that, a gift. Yes, we know that in a week’s time God’s faithfulness—however providentially awkward—will be attested by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. A faithfulness, which will change the course of history. Yet I cannot help but wonder what the followers of Jesus must have made of God’s faithfulness during that strange, silent hinge between Ascension and Pentecost.