It has been a momentous week, not only because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election in the United States, but because of the startling figures that outline the grim march of the coronavirus across this land and much of the rest of the world. Here in the Land of Opportunity, we are experiencing the greatest casualty rate in the world – surpassing even India by double digits in the number of cases reported and fatalities. It is a challenging time to lead a normal life, as “Covid fatigue” impels more and more people to abandon precautions followed by unsurprising consequences. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/08/health/us-coronavirus-sunday/index.html]
As the liturgical year draws to a close and Advent appears on the horizon, the themes of the readings tend to turn to expectation and preparedness. The day of the Lord is coming and, to be sure, while here we have no abiding city [Heb 13:14], the need for vigilance and resolute precaution has never been so urgently needed. Not surprisingly, vigilance is the theme of today’s readings, beginning with the beautiful and poetic late Jewish Book of Wisdom, which so influenced the thought of early Christians: “one who is vigilant on [Wisdom’s] account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” [Wis 6:15-16].
The gospel text contains one of the most famous parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers. Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images. This time, however, his focus is not on the guests and their attire, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were awaiting the arrival of the groom. That’s a bit strange, but it’s very likely that Matthew left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who was most likely to have been on his way to take the bride to his home. But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delay grows longer and longer. Night has now fallen. Ten of the girls came prepared for the long wait and ten did not.
When the shout is heard that the groom has arrived, there’s a scramble for their lamps [lampadas], not “torches” as in some translations. Lamps need oil to keep burning. So the story is really about having a enough oil to keep the lamps lit. The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones. But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense. In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life. Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared.
The image of Jesus as bridegroom is very ancient, and was traditionally used for his relationship to the people of God. The messianic banquet is, after all, a wedding feast, right to the end where in the Book of Revelation it is called “the wedding feast of the Lamb” [Rev. 19:9] in case there might be some doubt about the matter. Here, too, the watchword is vigilance – ‘semper paratus,’ as in the motto and marching song of the U.S. Coast Guard. Whether looking ahead to the Great Assize, as John Wesley described it, the preservation of liberty, or protection from the ravages of disease, the peril of falling asleep on the job is always a possibility. And the remedy is still eternal vigilance.