It’s the lament of the foolish bridesmaids, who came to the wedding without oil for their lamps, and then had to run out to the store, and ended up missing the whole thing.
It’s a weird tale, when you think about it. What kind of bridegroom turns up late? Isn’t that the bride’s right, to come late to the wedding? How can any of her bridesmaids be in trouble for being late? Jesus, though, is extolling the motto of the Girl Scouts, here. Be Prepared.
I’ve traveled through life burdened by all the extra stuff I’ve brought along and kept around, just in case. Suitcases I could barely lift are part of my memories of traveling abroad. And in my home there must be a dozen flashlights, even an oil lamp, for when the power goes out. My preparedness has sometimes gotten in my way, giving me a case of the what-ifs that took the edge off my sociability, and worse, blunted my sensitivity to others, especially strangers.
Yet when I hear this story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, I count myself among the foolish ones, because I have stumbled through my life unprepared for so many surprising twists and turns in the road. There must be a time in every day when I admit to myself and to God, I have no idea what is about to happen, or what I should be doing now. Please, God, just help me get through this. Mostly, I’ve gotten by. Sometimes, I’ve missed the party. And as I look back at my life, I really don’t know whether, overall, going with the flow or packing well has turned out to be the better choice.
Jesus, though, is recommending a panoramic vision (he is always going on about new sight and new insight). This is not the only tale in which he holds out extravagant delight and strong warning at the same time. In another wedding story he talked about the guests who didn’t show up and the strangers who were brought in suddenly, and how even they were expected to prepare themselves for the occasion so as not to insult their host.
He told a story about a priest and a lawyer on the Jericho road who were so caught up in their own preparations and their appointments they had no ability to turn aside for the beaten stranger, who turned out to be the Gate of Heaven for the Samaritan, who will be remembered for eternity because he was spiritually prepared, he did take time.
And Jesus talked about the wonderful feast the father of the prodigal son prepared, and how the elder son missed it because he had let the lamp of his love for his brother go out, and in the unexpected return of his brother all he could find in his heart were his jealousy and resentment, the lamps he had not let go out, and he couldn’t bring himself to go to the party.
Well, I’ve been there, in the small details and the large gaffes. There are so many gestures I’ve wanted to make and not gotten around to, there are so many risks I meant to take and shied away from, there are bold steps I failed in and ordinary moments I’ve missed.
And it seems to me that most of us spend a lot of time nagging at ourselves that we should be doing more. Often it’s hard to sit down and relax because that’s when the self-nagging really gets going. And yet one of the precious, priceless lessons parents need to impart to children is to get up and get going, that life is so much richer on every level if you work at it and if you take hold of it, and if you reach beyond the moment you are in.
Most folks I know, and certainly I am one, try to err on the side of wisdom. Yet what is more memorable than a sweet time of utter foolishness – especially at a wedding? The weddings I have blessed are memorable to me in the things that went wrong – not in all the preparations. There was the summer wedding where someone’s dog came and snuggled into every picture on the lawn – a dog it turned out no one knew and everyone thought came with someone else. There was the wedding where the best man dropped the ring and it rolled over the edge of the deck and into the sand and stones on the shoreline far below. Later someone found it – but not before we’d all laughed and talked about what the real signs of being married are. These details are more endearing to me than a thousand elegant preparations.
Yet that nagging dread of missing the boat remains. I pray that heaven, in its sudden openings in our lives, will have room for the foolish, whose too-human stories bring us all together, and always help me to feel at home and loved.
And I know that nothing can prepare me for the way the Spirit so often takes my breath away, as I turn a corner and see a tree, half bare-branched and half decked in the most amazing orange and butternut leaves; as I watch small birds feasting on seeds at the feeder near my window; as the cat who shares life with me salutes the morning with a bouncing leap off the porch. Part of being prepared is seeing the light that is always in the world, marrying our spirits to holiness every day.
1. The Clever Bridesmaids, He Qi, 2001, Nanjing, China. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
2. Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins. William Blake. 1822. Tate Gallery, London. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
3. Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, detail. Freidrich Wilhelm Schadow, 1838-42, Frankfurt, Germany. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition.
4. Wise and Foolish Virgins. The Leighton Fresco, Baron Leighton. 1862. St. Michael and All Angels Church. Lyndhurst, Great Britain. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library. Art in the Christian Tradition.