I don’t know if anyone has ever been to a wedding reception at which the best man or the maid of honor in their speeches ever embarrassed the bride and / or the groom. I’m not talking about the usual goofy stories and gentle ribbing, but something really embarrassing. I can’t say that I have ever experienced this. But I bring this up as an example that might be a little comparable to an element in the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel reading.
It’s often referred to as the Parable of the Ten Virgins or the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. I think this parable might seem a little strange to us, 2000 years removed from the context in which Jesus originally told it. To understand it better, let me give a little background on what was customary for Jewish weddings in the time of Christ. The first stage of marriage was known as the betrothal period. If an agreement was reached between two families that the young man from one of the families and a young woman from the other should be wed, then the two were considered betrothed, similar to what we would refer to as “engaged”. Except there was a key difference, once they were betrothed, they were already considered to be legally married, but the bride continued to live with her family for awhile, up to a year. The second stage of marriage was the wedding feast. “This began after sunset when the groom” would go “to the home of his bride and lead her in a celebratory procession to a great banquet being prepared at the couple’s new home.” The procession was quite an event, filled with singing and dancing, and led by a group of maidens carrying torches to light the way.
This brings us back to the example I gave at the beginning of a bride or groom being deeply embarrassed at their own wedding reception. For the maiden torchbearers to have no lights to lead the procession, it would have been a great embarrassment not only to them but also to the married couple. That is why the five wise virgins refused to share their oil with the foolish ones who were caught unprepared – they didn’t want to risk using up all the oil and not having any lights to the lead the wedding procession.
Also, something to make note of: anytime Jesus mentions a wedding feast in one of his parables, He is always referring to heaven. Wedding feasts are symbolic of heaven – a time of great rejoicing, feasting, happiness. It’s interesting that his first public miracle took place at a wedding feast – coincidence? I think not!
Jesus is talking about being prepared for heaven. He of course is the bridegroom of the parable. And the Church or the faithful are the ten virgins – that means you and I. We are the ones who even now are waiting for the coming of the Lord. Not just at the end of time, but more likely at the moment of our own death. Now that’s a word that makes us squirm in our seats – nobody likes it, nobody wants to hear about it, think about it, etc. But from the very beginning, it has been a reality that every single human being has had to contend with.
But Jesus entered into this world to turn death upside down: rather than being a source of fear and dread, it can instead be the gateway to a new and infinitely better life, an eternal celebration and an eternal rest all rolled up into one amazing package. But in order to look at it this way, Jesus tells us that we have something to do: we have to prepare ourselves for it. Or more specifically, we have to prepare ourselves for His coming.
Not always easy to do, because we are usually so focused on the present moment. And certainly this week, it has been really hard to think about anything other than the here and now. Nevertheless, Jesus is urging us to be vigilant, to be prepared: “Therefore, stay awake,” Jesus says, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
And there’s a tremendous advantage to being prepared, besides being ready for the coming of Jesus Christ, that also applies to this life. As our first reading from the book of Wisdom says: “Whoever…keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.” In other words, constantly keeping vigil, preparing ourselves for that moment when we shall come face to face with Jesus, will actually help us to be less anxious in general, and less anxious about death in particular. And more good news from St. Paul in our second reading: “If we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
There’s tremendous anxiety out there, and basically it all boils down to the very normal human fear of suffering and death. But Jesus desires to free us from all that. We must prepare ourselves for his coming, always being watchful. How do we do that? By growing in holiness, i.e. through prayer and the sacraments, works of mercy and charity, and ridding ourselves of anything that leads us away from God. If we strive to do these things everyday, then we can look to the end of our earthly lives with expectation rather than dread. Come, Lord Jesus, come.