Keep Awake

Over the spring and summer, a series of morning prayer videos went viral, being shared thousands of times across the internet and social media sites by organizations and people of all religions and nationalities. Morning prayer, going viral! Each of these videos showed a fairly normal morning prayer, led by the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral in England, in a black cassock, seated outside in his garden with a tea tray. In one of them, a cat walks across the screen, and disappears into Dean Willis’ cassock, apparently hoping for a few pets or scratches. In another video, a second cat climbs up on the table and sits there in front of the tea tray. This cat, named Tiger, spends the next several minutes scooping milk out of the cream pitcher with his paw, and lapping it up.

As a cat lover myself, I think these videos are adorable. And as I watch these cats frolic around the screen, I realize that I’ve completely lost track of what Dean Willis is saying about the gospel, because I’m so focus on these mischievous interlopers. As soon as these cats enter the screen, I immediately acquire tunnel-vision, and am only really interested in seeing what the cat is going to do next.

It’s easy, isn’t it, to get sidelined by tunnel-vision? To be so distracted by one thing, and one thing only, no matter how cute, or good it might be, that we lose sight of everything else that’s going on, everything else that’s important.

And I want to suggest that this tunnel vision, this distraction, is what happens whenever we read this week’s gospel lesson. It’s a bit confusing, this week’s parable. Ten bridesmaids—five who were slightly more prepared than the others. Ten bridesmaids wait, for the bridegroom is delayed. We’re told that all of them sleep, and all of them wake when the shout comes that the bridegroom is returning. Five bridesmaids have more oil with which to replenish their lamps. Five bridesmaids request more, and are rebuffed by their friends, who tell them that there won’t be enough for everyone, that they’d better go buy more.

Five bridesmaids go to buy more oil, and while they’re doing this, the bridegroom suddenly returns, and takes the other five into the wedding feast. The five who have gone to buy oil then come back, and say wait, let us in too! And they are rebuffed: “I do not know you”. The parable ends with a confusing moral: to “keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour”.

Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. This is one of a series of rather apocalyptic parables found in Matthew and Luke, focusing on the coming of the kingdom of God, and more importantly, who will be a part of that coming kingdom. This is where you find the parable of the sheep and the goats, the wealthy landowner, and other stories that don’t always seem like good news, even when we can understand what they mean.

The ten bridesmaids’ division into being either wise or foolish seems to be based purely on whether they brought enough oil, or were wise enough to prepare for the delay of the bridegroom. And on the face of it, that seems to make sense. Except for this brief cautionary moral at the end: keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Wait. Hold on a minute. In the parable, all the bridesmaids, both wise and foolish fell asleep. What about the oil? Shouldn’t the oil be part of the moral for this tale—it is, after all, the only distinction between the wise and foolish?

The oil. Everybody has an explanation of what it is. For Augustine, it is the oil of charity. For Epiphanius, it is the oil of compassion, of thinking about the future. And more than one Christian writer has expounded on the oil as a symbol of purity or virginity. All that is to say, is that there’s as many different interpretations of the oil as there are theologians.

Thinking about all of these different interpretations of the oil, this week, made me think about Tiger, our feline friend who captivated so the world’s attention when he strolled into a prayer livestream.

This is a parable about the Bridegroom’s return, and the bridesmaids waiting for him. As soon as the oil appears in the parable, we’re captivated by it. Just as we get tunnel-vision the moment that Tiger appears on-screen, we’re also prone to get a bit of tunnel-vision around the oil, as the key to interpreting this parable.

We can spend so much time wondering what it is, and why it made a difference, that we begin to loose track of we’re waiting at all. If we’re too focused on it, we wander off in search of more, like the foolish bridesmaids.

But in the end, it wasn’t really about the oil, was it?

The wise bridesmaids thought it was. So did the foolish—they ran off to get more, thinking that would be the thing to get them in the door. Through a lamp lit with oil, they would be seen, and known when the bridegroom finally, after years and years and years, made an appearance.

But the oil wasn’t it, was it? We want it to be the oil, yes.

We want it to be this leader, or that leader, or this power or principality, someone who will finally bring about justice and make our lives better. We want it to be the oil, because that will allow us to be certain. It will allow us to be certain that we’ve made the right decision. We can settle back into our complacency that the world is alright. That we don’t need a savior coming in upon the clouds, that we don’t need justice, true, true justice for the poor and the oppressed, the kind of justice that will never happen under any president, any king, any ruler. If we have the oil, we can forget that there’s supposed to be something more—a shout, a cry, a sudden light around the edges of the doorframe.

It wasn’t the oil, was it? The wise bridesmaids, they just got lucky. They didn’t need the oil, though it made the last few days, moments, years, more comfortable, more light-filled. But the Bridegroom didn’t know these bridesmaids by the oil. He didn’t know their faces better because lamp-light illuminated them. The Bridegroom didn’t need more light, because the light streaming out from the open doorway was plenty to see by, dazzling the eyes of those who had been waiting, and those who were still there when the Bridegroom came.

It wasn’t the oil, you see, but the waiting. It was the waiting, the waiting on the Repairer of the Breach, the Restorer of Streets to Dwell In. The Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory, the Alpha and the Omega.  

Perhaps this week more than ever, we’ve felt like we’re in a time of waiting, on high alert, when at every moment, there could be a change that changes our lives, or at least our national lives,. And just as the wait of this particular week in time is over, we as a church enter into a season where we reflect on what it means to wait for our whole lives, for our ancestors’ lives, for our children’s lives, for the coming of the kingdom of God.

In orthodox traditions, the season of Advent actually begins next week: forty days of Advent to match the forty days of Lent. Forty days of waiting to match forty days of penance. And although in the Western church we are not yet in Advent, not until November 29th, the readings for these next weeks feel different, somehow. They remind us that we are still waiting. Still hoping beyond all hope. Still waiting for the Bridegroom to appear, for the light around the doorframe to dissolve into a new sunrise. Thy Kingdom Come. We are waiting because there is so much more work to do. Because there are those who hunger, who weep. Because there are those who are homeless, are forgotten. Because there are those who need justice and love and mercy that no earthly leader or power or principality can ever give.

We keep working, and waiting for this justice, this image of a world made right, captured powerfully by the Victorian poet, Christina Rossetti

BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out

With lighted lamps and garlands round about

To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.

It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,

Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.

It may be at the crowing of the cock

Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.

For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:…

So keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

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