Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom….
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our Lord’s parable from today’s Gospel reading, we find that the ten bridesmaids are having to wait. They’re out to meet up with the bridegroom to join in the big wedding celebration, but the bridegroom is delayed. And all of them -- both the wise and the foolish -- become drowsy and fall asleep. Normal behavior for people who have to wait for something into the night hours, because it’s not until midnight that the bridegroom finally arrives.
And for us, this week in particular was defined by a lot of waiting, as the vote counts in the decisive states seem to click along at a snail’s pace. The results came in soon enough, and we now have a clearer view of what lies ahead for our country than we did this time last week. But the uncertainty took its toll -- on all of us, I think. Waiting is exceedingly difficult -- whether it’s for the bridesmaids in the parable or for us today. If we have to wait for something, that means that there’s little else that we can do -- that’s why we have to wait. And it doesn’t help that, in our society, we have been able to eradicate waiting from so much of life -- instant convenience is our expectation for everything -- and this makes us that much more impatient and anxious whenever we’re forced to wait for something. We’ve found a way to escape what is one of the most fundamental realities of human life: our submission to the passage of time. Not really, of course; because this escape is mostly an illusion, but we’ve ensured that the illusion is quite convincing. The result is that waiting for us is mostly the experience of distracted anxiety and impatience. It’s the only other experience available when the distraction of instant gratification is taken away. But the thing is that we’re distracted either way. We’re unable to sustain our attentions and our intentions while we wait; for us, to wait is simply the experience of impatience or of complete passivity to hopefully ignore the time.
One of the problems that this causes for the Christian life is that it all but guarantees that wisdom can’t get in. The inability to maintain the discipline of waiting is a mark of foolishness. Nor does this inability help us prepare for an active Christian life in the midst of a world that is very much not yet at the moment of redemption. Every Christian finds him or herself on this side of the culmination of all things in Christ: we are caught up in a world where our loved ones still die and depart from among us; where right judgment is often very hard to discern; where what we’re supposed to do is difficult to determine. In a way, waiting defines nearly every aspect of the Christian life. Indeed, the task before us that our Collect mentions -- that we may purify ourselves even as he is pure -- is the task is this disciplined waiting; it’s about acquiring the wisdom we need to maintain attention as we wait for the day when he comes again with power and great glory and we are made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom.
The main difference between the wise and the foolish bridesmaids is that the wise ones make sure to take flasks of oil with them for their lamps while the foolish ones don’t bother. The foolish have their lamps with them, but I guess they just assume that they won’t need them or that everything will work out regardless. They’re half-prepared, which is to say that they’re unprepared. But the image of the lamp is itself significant. In the Old Testament, we find that in God’s instructions for the Temple, there was to be a golden lampstand whose flame was to be tended by Aaron and his sons from evening to morning before the Lord; the lamp was to serve as a “perpetual ordinance” to remind the Israelites of the presence of God among them, a reference back to the pillar of flame through which God led them through the wilderness. And in the Psalms, we read that “You, O LORD, are my lamp; my God, you make my darkness bright” and that “Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path.” Lamps are a sign of God’s presence and of God’s direction and guidance.
So when Jesus takes up this metaphor of the lamps, he’s signaling to his hearers that he’s talking about the awareness of God’s presence and guidance in our lives. And this awareness is the gift of wisdom. Which makes the oil that the wise bridesmaids carry with them and the foolish bridesmaids forget significant as well. If the lamps represent the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we can think of the oil as our conscious act to keep our attention fixed on that guidance; to keep ourselves open to it and aware of it. As our reading from the Book of Wisdom puts it:
Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom…. In the Christian life, it’s not enough to be complacently satisfied with hope alone. It’s not enough to assure ourselves with an easy optimism that “everything will work out fine in the end” in order to just keep ourselves comfortable as we wait. Christian hope induces us to a kind of action; hope is what moves us towards that which we hope for. And we exercise the gift of hope that God has given us by pursuing wisdom and purity. We “fix our thoughts” on wisdom in order to discern more clearly what our priorities should be and to clarify our judgment. Again, it’s like the oil that the wise bridesmaids bring along with their lamps. And in order to fix our thoughts on wisdom -- in order to seek “perfect understanding” -- we have to purify ourselves even as God is pure. We have to conform our lives to Christ, the bridegroom who we’re waiting for.
So, even if we have a better picture of what’s ahead for our country after this election, the uncertainty remains -- as do all of the anxieties and conflicts and turmoil that we’ve gone through already. Darkness will continue to set it, which will make it that much more difficult to maintain our awareness of the presence and the guidance of God in our lives. We need the oil to keep our lamps lit.
Ultimately, though, our hope is grounded in what Christ has done: he is the blessed Son who came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life. Our hope is fixed on this and on nothing else, which among things means that the events of this week neither fulfilled our hope nor destroyed it altogether. Either conclusion would represent a distraction from wisdom and perfect understanding, and thus a lapse into folly. We are neither to grieve as those who have no hope -- as Paul says in our Epistle -- nor rest in complacency as the foolish bridesmaids did who were content with lamps that had no oil. To fix our hope on the redemption of Christ -- to fix our thoughts on wisdom -- is to be able to look past all of these competing distractions. It is to “keep awake”; to live as though the bridegroom could be just around the corner; to purify ourselves even as he is pure. For we “know neither the day nor the hour” -- which is another way of saying that the object of our hope is not something that we could identify within the predictable events of this world. God has pointed our sights toward another world altogether, a world beyond death itself, where “we will be with the Lord forever.”
Keep awake. Amen.