Light in the Darkness
Almost a decade ago, my husband and I attended the wedding of dear friends in Sicily. The groom is Norwegian and the bride Sicilian - the wedding was taking place in the Baptist church in Siracusa pastored by the bride’s father. My husband and I sat on the “groom’s side” of the aisle, which was packed with people from Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, and us. We were all in our pews at least ten minutes before the service was supposed to begin. Meanwhile, on the bride’s side of the aisle the all-Sicilian guests were chatting, coming and going from the sanctuary, milling, greeting, cooing over the babies. A lot of time passed, and the appointed hour for the wedding ceremony was receding into the distant past. We northerners on the groom’s side kept looking behind us to the door of the church to see if the wedding party might at last be showing up. Eventually, the bride’s father, responding to the obvious expectation on one side of the church that the wedding should have started and ended by then, rose to the lectern and said with a warm smile, “Welcome to Italy, where the bride is always late.”
Perhaps this is a long-standing Mediterranean thing, because apparently in the ancient Near East weddings also started quite late. There, however, it was the groom that one waited for. It was not unusual for him to spend a long time at the home of the bride, negotiating the material side of their new living arrangements, gifts to his family from them and possibly from his side back to hers. When he returned to his own family’s home, the celebrations could finally begin, even if that were very late at night (the celebration would last for days). Young women in the groom’s extended family would be on hand near his home to start the festivities by lighting his way. Seeing the approaching lights, his family would rev up the celebration in the house.
Jesus uses this scenario, so familiar to his followers, to teach them the importance of being spiritually ready at all times for the Day of the Lord, for the end of our long period of waiting and the arrival of the Reign of God, the celestial banquet that the biblical literature so often likens to a wedding feast, the most joyous occasion that people can imagine. Jesus’ tale is cautionary: you may have the very best of intentions, but if you aren’t spiritually ready on that day you will be surprised and devastated to find that you aren’t at the banquet table.
The wise young women are those who thought ahead to the possibility that the groom could be very late, and so they prepared themselves for that. These young ladies understand the spirit of wisdom that we hear in our passage from the Wisdom of Solomon: wisdom is proactive; wisdom is there to be discovered by those who seek her out - who want to perfect their understanding. The wise young women have understood what they want to accomplish - the lighting of the way of the groom - and also how they can guarantee that this happens. The foolish young women went out hours earlier with only as much oil as was in the lamp that they grabbed. The wise young ladies are not ungenerous for not sharing their oil with the other girls - they are truly wise. They know that if they do apportion the oil to everyone there they will all run out before they reach the groom’s house, and then the entire effort will be a failure. They and the groom will be stumbling in the pitch-black night and his family won’t know to prepare the celebration. At each step of the way, they are wise indeed.
They are wise to have fallen asleep - both the wise and the foolish do so; it is not a mark against any of them. When the groom finally approaches, they are refreshed and ready for a long night of celebrations. This is fine instruction to all of us, I think, on the wisdom of taking care of ourselves while we wait. How many of us need to hear that self-care isn’t self-ish, and that if we haven’t kept ourselves healthy and well in body, mind, and spirit, we aren’t going to be much good for anything or anyone. Balance can be hard, as we run feverishly in pursuit of fine projects, good work, loving care for our dear ones. Ah, balance!
Wise and foolish young women wait for the bridegroom in the dark on the side of a path. They kindle a light in the darkness. We wait for Christ in a benighted place and time on the paths of our own lives’ journeys. We wait well. We kindle a light in the darkness. We light lamps in the darkness as our testimony to the light of Christ that we do believe is coming, and that will illumine the whole world we can see and the worlds we as yet know nothing about. We light our lamps, we invoke the presence of the Coming One, when we care for the ill, when we visit and teach the incarcerated, when we feed the poor, when we lift the lowly. We send out our small rays of light to cut the darkness - rays that are hardly small to those we serve - rather, glorious beams, floodlights in the night sky. It was Christ who said that when we come to the aid or comfort of the oppressed or the suffering we have truly done these things to his very self. It is simply a good thing to come to another’s aid, but Jesus’ parable of light in the darkness urges us to see our acts of caring as a spiritual discipline, wherever we enact them. They are each an opportunity to grow and deepen our faith. The greatest preparedness we can have for the Coming One is a faith that has been cultivated, honed, and tuned, so that when the bridgegroom at last comes down the path we may shake off our sleep, jump up to his side, and enter with him into the banquet that he has prepared for us. We deepen our faith by praying about our deeds of service - we connect the compassion we feel to its holy source - the God who made all things in love and loves all things and people. We deepen our faith as we remember Christ’s words to the most ordinary assembly of folk: “You are the light of the world.” Every person we pass on the sidewalk or in the gutter, the people we sit next to in class or on New Jersey Transit, they are the light of the world. And so are you and me! We light lamps of faith in the darkness when, in any humble way, we help these “lights of the world” to shine more fully.
Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish girls tells us, in a positive and not scolding way, that we must never assume that we are prepared. We must never assume we have enough oil. We must be filling our lamps continually. Wisdom, hope, love, faith - these things are the oil with which we may put forth beams of light. Jesus’ teaching to us isn’t about our inevitable inadequacy in these things or any other, but is encouragement, for his Kingdom’s sake, never to be complacent. Life is challenging; have we let that fact deplete our reserve of love? Is our lamp low on wisdom? Have we let something compromise our faith? Let’s not be like the foolish young women who left their houses in the likelihood of nightfall without checking their lamps.
In this - again - Christ calls for balance. We are to be ready - to keep our lamps stocked and ready to shine - and to remember that this is all a privilege and an act of joy. Perhaps you remember the old bumper sticker, “Jesus is coming - look busy!” No, Christ is not telling us to live with a frantic paranoia - even downright fear - as some of our Christian sisters and brothers appear to believe. Christ invites us to live with grace and joy - attentive, responsive, responsible - until he comes.
On this All Saints Day, we remember with gratitude those who have finished their journey on this side of life’s path. We honor them; we thank God for them, as we cherish the beams of light they kindled in their day. On my drive home to Philadelphia each day, I pass a large cemetery in Pennsylvania, and I often see a man sitting by a gravestone. He brings a camp chair to sit in and he pushes into the ground next to the stone a small banner (like a lawn sign) with a photograph of a woman with dark hair. Is this his wife, or daughter, or mother? He must miss her terribly. I wonder if he goes there to try to feel close to her. I think he is keeping a lamp lit in the darkness, a light of love and memory, until the day that their spirits are together in the Life Beyond Life. His presence at that grave is a light to me - he reminds me of the limitless power and God-given gift of human love. If your heart this day is sad in the loss of someone dear, I hope you can understand your love as one ray of light in the darkness, a testimony to God’s first gift of love to you.
And so we all wait. We wait for Christ to come. Let us wait wisely and well, making of our very lives a light in the darkness, with deeds of love and mercy until God’s Love and Mercy rule night and day.
Matthew 25: 1-13, workingpreacher.com, Carla Works, Nov. 6, 2011
Matthew 25: 1-13, Feasting on the Word, ed. B. Brown Taylor and D. Bartlett