Proper 27, Year A, St. Agnes’ Church, Cowan

“But at midnight there was a shout…” (Matt. 25:6).

Human beings are naturally disposed to look for regularity and continuity. We’ve learned this legitimately: after all, the sun comes up each morning; season follows season with some regularity; “the earth abides” (Eccles. 1:4), as Holy Scripture says. Changes take place, of course, in human and natural life; but change itself witnesses to regularity and continuity, since we would not be conscious of the shadow of change without stability’s contrast. We look for continuity because we live in a world of change; it’s because we have a keen sense that things are passing away that we seek the things that will endure.

Our Gospel reading today, from St. Matthew, reminds us that Christians, for all our expectations of stability, are supposed to be alert for sudden and unseen change. In fact, we are rapidly approaching the season of Advent, where that is precisely the theme: the coming of the Son of Man, at a “day and hour no one knows” (Matt. 24:36), as Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel. On these last Sundays of the Church Year, we anticipate the end of time, the wrapping up of all things with the coming of the Messiah.

I say that we anticipate it, in the sense that we look ahead toward it; though Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that no one can see it with perfect clarity. Is the event near or far off, around the next corner or distant in time? Christians devote this period of the calendar, as we draw near to Advent, to moving to the edge of our seats. We remember that the regularity and continuity that we value will suddenly be interrupted by the return of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ parable, of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, points toward the need to stay alert. Ten bridesmaids are summoned to meet the bridegroom, to go with him to the wedding. They all bring their lamps, but only five bring oil to burn. While they are waiting for the bridegroom, they all fall asleep. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, the cry goes up that the bridegroom is drawing near. Only five are ready to meet the bridegroom, while the others are unprepared. Only five enter the wedding banquet, while the others are left behind, knocking fruitlessly on the door to the feast.

As it says in the story, “But at midnight there was a shout…” (Matt. 25:6). I guess the bridesmaids knew the bridegroom was coming, but his coming still caught them all asleep. His coming was sudden and unanticipated, because if the bridesmaids had really anticipated it, they would have stayed awake. They were summoned by a shout because they were dead asleep! They didn’t see it coming even though they knew the bridegroom would appear. His coming caught them in mid-stride, you might say, if they had been moving at all.

Even though they are all asleep and unaware, five of them are prepared in advance, ready to trim their lamps and proceed to the feast. The oil for the lamps is a symbol of refreshment and renewal: “you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over” (Ps. 23:5), as it says in the twenty-third psalm. In Matthew’s Gospel, oil symbolizes repentance: as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face” (Matt. 6:17). Make yourselves ready, in other words, to appear before the Lord.

What’s promised to us in this story is entrance into the wedding banquet, the great party at the end of time, prepared for the bridegroom and bride. Even now, as we gather for this Eucharist, we receive the promise of communion with God through Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We’re at the edge of our seats as we look for his coming again.

Christians are like the bridesmaids in the parable. The coming of the Son of Man will catch us all sleeping because it is meant to be sudden and unexpected. Yet we’re also called to be alert, to be awake in that sense. The question for us is whether or not we will be prepared, ready to trim and light our lamps. Will we wake from sleep, renewed and refreshed, made fit for the next chapter by repentance and prayer? This is the time that’s given to us to make ready to greet the bridegroom, the Messiah who is coming at an unexpected hour.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee