When we spend so much of our lives battling, striving, and working as hard as we can, the image of waiting outside in the dark, hoping for the door to open, is one of the most challenging passages of scripture (Matthew 25, a traditional reading for Advent). Matthew’s ten virgins standing outside, waiting for the bridegroom to let them in, is enough to send many of us right back to the real world–where many doors open when we feel like it. Virgins? Clearly this was the pre-Katy Perry (much less Madonna) era.
In Jeremiah one of the refrains of God’s word is this: “I will banish from them the sound of mirth and the sound of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride” (Jer. 16: 9, 25:10). Jeremiah plays strongly on the image of a bride who has gone astray: one who has gone after other husbands, idols and images of other gods. Those who heard Jeremiah’s message understood that the unfaithful bride was all of them, all of Israel. The prophecy is written in a way that is sympathetic to God. God’s lavish love has been pushed aside for others. God has a right to move on from those who have polluted themselves with loyalty to other gods. The covenant has been broken.
When Jesus begins his ministry, he says God also has the right–and has chosen–to invite us back into the covenant. The wedding feast becomes a symbol of the restored relationship between God and God’s people. The kingdom of heaven is marked by such a feast.
The virgins (sometimes referred to as bridesmaids, acknowledging Jeremiah’s construction) that populate Matthew’s “kingdom of heaven” story are not intended to suggest that these women are incomplete, but rather that they are able to give to God their all. They haven’t claimed or been claimed by another. No one has taken God’s rightful place. Encumbered only by the lamp and oil, they enter into the night, believing God will meet them.
Those who choose the heavier load, who carry extra oil, are prepared to wait longer than the others.
I was reminded recently that our neural pathways are shaped by our habits. The more we do something, the larger the pathway, and the more apt we are to fall onto it. I like to have my hands free, so I’m always more apt to take less than more, believing I can get what I need on the way. But that comes from a life based on movement, going here and there, in my mind, in my work, and in my play. I can always go and get what I need.
This scripture suggests a different way. The kingdom of heaven will be experienced as a wedding feast when we do what is necessary to be still and wait on God. It requires a commitment; our hands are not free. It requires faith, a belief that the door will open. It requires that we are available, unattached to that which seeks to take the place of God.
Fittingly, forming these connections takes a conscious effort. When the familiar smaller gods shout out their command for our loyalty, we recognize them for what they are, and let them be. The corresponding pathway shrinks. When we stand in front of the closed door, growing angry by the unfairness or fearful that we have been left behind, we can deliberately choose to speak different words: words of expectation of what is to come, words that know God to be good. The better pathway grows. When we get ready to meet God, we realize that to change our connections takes time, and we allow ourselves enough fuel to keep our lamp lit.
“At midnight, there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’” (Mt. 25: 6).
Come out…from behind those lesser gods, from the underside of fear, from your own self…come out and meet your God. There is a party going on, and you are invited.