There are dreams that follow you through your life--and I don’t mean dreams as in big plans we have in our waking life, but the dreams you have when you fall asleep, the ones that are revealing of your inner thoughts and fears. Some are unique to only you. But there are those many of us share. Like The Test Dream. You walk into class and the teacher hands you a test you had no idea was coming. Or the paper you didn’t turn in because you didn’t even know you had registered for the class until the end of the semester and it's too late.
When I became a priest, that dream remained, but the trappings changed. I’m about to preach a sermon when I realize I forgot to print out the manuscript or even worse, write it at all. In some versions I run upstairs to the office and the printer is broken and I keep trying to fix it while running back and forth begging for your patience.
Maybe you don’t have a version of this dream; maybe I’m giving away too much about myself! But if you’ve ended up living in Scarsdale or surrounding areas, you’re probably the type to have a fear of not being fully prepared. It’s a useful fear to have. It helps you get things done and not be caught off guard.
Our parable for today urges us to think about being prepared in a spiritual sense. It meets us each year in the lead-up to Advent, a more reflective, inward-looking season in the church. It comes from Matthew’s Gospel. Ten bridesmaids go out to fetch the bridegroom. They carry torches, and oil. Their torches light the way to the bridegroom's home, and they’ll lead the way back to the bride’s house, after they’ve fetched the groom. But the groom is late, and there’s this period of waiting, in darkness. Five of the bridesmaids have made sure they have oil to last until he arrives; five haven’t, and so those last five go into town to get more oil, and end up missing his arrival and the wedding itself. Sometimes you hear them called the wise and foolish virgins (or maidens). One translation calls them the “sensible and silly girls.”
This parable always comes to us not just in the lead-up to the contemplative season of Advent but also in late fall, when (I always imagine) back 200, even 100 years ago, people would have come to church to hear this and related it to all the winter preparations needing to be done. Don’t be like those foolish bridesmaids! Get your root vegetables stored, your wood for the fire split and stacked, your candles made, tomatoes canned, eggs soaked in lye (I just learned this last year because I have chickens: did you know you can soak the eggs in lye and they’ll keep for months after the hens stop laying?). That’s a connection people would have made for centuries when they came to church and heard this reading.
There’s some of that still, getting our furnaces serviced, our winter coats out. But we have few worries nowadays about really making it through winter. What I think a more immediate worry most of us are having is, How will we make it through these times we’re in? The world around us seems dark. And it’s getting darker. Many of us are feeling that.
We’re heading into times where We’re going to need reserves of oil, and light.
You can always tell those who, when something happens in the world, or in their life, have extra oil, can manage to keep their torches lit through the darkness. They don’t react to news stories with simple solutions. They don’t run to far corners of the internet to vent, or seek out the like minded for safety. They speak carefully, with others in mind.
When tragedy strikes them personally, they don’t lose their faith, cut off their community, collapse and give up altogether. They have extra oil in their flask, and when you’re fortunate enough to meet one of these people, you want to be one, too. I have about three of them in my life, and they’ve saved me. I hope you have them too. Some of you are them, for others.
It’s often asked in Bible studies on this passage, why don’t the five bridesmaids share their oil with those who ran out? That seems so unChristian. But we’re talking about spiritual, emotional, intellectual reserves that only we can source within ourselves, over many years, in the good times and bad. With God’s help, of course--and a lot of grace.
This parable has been very popular in Christian art. My favorite work is by William Blake, a watercolor. Blake was a visionary, poet, artist, prophet. His Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins shows on one side of the piece the five wise women, robed in white, lanterns lit, standing erect side by side, glowing, looking almost like they were cut from a block of translucent marble.
At the top of the piece an angel sounds a trumpet; this is the moment of truth, when it’s revealed how prepared they are (or not). Moments of truth come to us throughout our lives.
Opposite the five wise bridesmaids are the five foolish ones, in total disarray, arms flailing, knees caving, faces in anguish, all in different contortions. We recognize them because we’ve all been there. But where we want to be, is here. Prepared when the hard times come. Able to keep our lamps lit and be a light to others.
As physical darkness falls and we enter a more contemplative season, this reading reminds us—and we need it this year more than most: Be prepared. Keep your lamps filled. Be a beacon to others. Do whatever you can to bring light to the world. That’s all we can do, and it’s Everything. Amen.