The Gospel for the last Sunday of the Church Year, the Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Virgins, is full of identifiable imagery. The dominating image is that of Christ the groom and his marriage to His bride, the Church. The Church has attendees, the virgins, who await the groom’s coming.
The reference is obvious, especially when understood in the context. Jesus is teaching about the end times. Perhaps His most consistent and prominent teaching is, “Be ready, because you don’t know the day or the hour when I’m returning.”
On one hand, there are certain markers of the groom’s coming. “At midnight a cry was heard.” The cry announced His coming. Likewise, certain signs will announce Christ’s coming. Trumpets will sound. He’ll be coming from the east. The four horsemen of war, pestilence, famine, and false prophecy will be galloping forth, the first three wreaking havoc, the last promising an earthly end to the havoc…if you just follow him. Tribulation will get worse; the elect will be persecuted. Then the end will come. Jesus will return on the clouds with the angels.
If those signs don’t happen, Christ’s return is not going on. There are two Christs. There is a Christ defined by His Word, identified by signs He ordained and sets out, and Who is present where He says He is present. The above signs mark His return. At present, His presence exists mysteriously, where the Church calls upon His name, in communion, where apostolic ministers are preaching His Word, in the Church’s absolution.
But the Church has always understood He will come again as He left, in a localized status. That will be at the end of time, and that will be a great marriage feast celebrating the marriage of Christ and His Church.
Then there’s the Christ who is crafted from human desire and human projection. He arises from humanity’s values, hopes, and ideas. In a sense there’s a “wedding” here as well. It’s the wedding between those psychic energies arising from human desire and the archetype Christ. Another name for this form of Christ is “Antichrist,” the one “in place of” the real, flesh and blood Christ marked by words He gives in Scripture.
Enough of that…we have an “on the other hand” to get to.
On the other hand, though there are clear markers of Christ’s return, there is a lot that is not known. He will come at an hour we do not know.
This paradox between knowing the signs yet having no clue when Jesus is returning is the backdrop behind St. Paul’s words, from the epistle for this week, “But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ..you yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so comes as a thief in the night. …But you, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of darkness.”
The day comes as a thief, but it should not overtake us as a thief, for we will be ready for it. Because of this posture of faith – every ready for Christ’s return – churches often face east, for Christ will return as lightning from the east to the west. So also are graveyards faced toward the east, so when the bodies arise, they’ll be facing Christ. When we go to church, part of the posture of faith we are assuming is expectation that He may be returning on that day.
I remember as a child, believing on any day Christ might be returning. I still believe this, but now it’s more of a theoretical belief. When I was a child, it was as sure a thought as my own dad returning from work. Would that we had this childlike faith, the sort Christ sets up as ideal.
The parable for this week’s Gospel simply builds off this teaching, to be ready. All the images involved in the parable introduce interesting alleyways to explore. Why are we focused on virgin bridesmaids and not the bride, if the bride is the Church? What does the virginal aspect of the characters mean? What is the oil we should have in reserves? Who cried at midnight? What does it mean to sleep? What is the light produced from the oil?
This Gospel in particular invites a lot of study in cultural background regarding ancient marriage practice. Cultural history can give some background, but as a rule, I try not to rely on such explorations too much. Why? Because Jesus didn’t leave us with cultural history; He left us with a parable. The Church had centuries with this Gospel without any understanding of ancient Hebrew marriage custom. To say we can only understand the Gospel with this cultural background is to introduce a sort of gnosticism (small g) into our procedure, whereby only those with a secrete, academic knowledge are permitted access to the “real meaning” of the text.
As a rule, then, cultural details can help us explore depths, but not new depths. Everything we need to understand what’s going on should be right there, coupled with other passages that help inform us, for instance, the biblical image of our Lord’s marriage to His people.
The key question in this Gospel that emerges, whatever the cultural background is, is, how do we keep ourselves among the wise virgins who had reserves of oil? What is that oil? What does it mean to “watch”?