28 August 2018

Parable of the Ten Virgins (Reprise)

(Posting in preparation for Friday's readings.) Friday's Gospel lection is the parable of the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom. Five are wise and five are foolish. While all of them fall asleep at some point after the bridegroom is delayed, half of them are still ready to greet him when he comes and also to serve him as they are meant to. Their lamps are full. The other half have not prepared so their lamps are either out or running out of oil. These latter virgins ask the "wise" virgins to share oil with them, but are told  that if they were to do that they too might run out. The "foolish virgins" are sent out to buy some oil (it is after midnight, remember). In the meantime, the Bridegroom comes, the doors are locked, the party begins, and the foolish virgins are left out in the cold with the Bridegroom declaring, "I never knew you!"

Parables have a unique capacity to take us where we are and lead us to Christ. It doesn't matter that we are all in different places. We enter the story and thus enter a sacred space where we can meet God in Christ ourselves. For this reason, although I have written about this parable before, it had a freshness for me this week. Themes may remain similar (waiting, covenant, consummation of a wedding, faithfulness, preparation, celebration, future fulfillment, foolishness, wisdom, etc) but what the parable calls for today will differ  from what it personally entailed for the hearer yesterday. It seems to me this parable describes and calls us each to a life of prayer, a life given over to another so that his own purposes may be fulfilled through our relationship. It is the story of a life given over to waiting; it is a waiting of disciplined preparation and attention, but it is also, for that very reason, waiting which is joyful and full of promise and hope. It is the kind of waiting which signals a life where, in terms of today's parable, one especially prepares oneself to be surprised by the Bridegroom's promised and inevitable coming and by all he has done to prepare for us as his bride.

Reminder: The Nature of Jewish Marriages in Jesus' Day

Jewish weddings took place in two stages. First came the betrothal in which the two were joined in a covenant of marriage. This was more than an engagement and if it was to be sundered it could only occur through processes called "divorce". After the betrothal the bridegroom went to his family home and began to prepare for his bride. He ordinarily began building an addition to the family home. It was understood that he would provide better accommodations than his bride had had until this point. (We should all be thinking of this situation when we hear Jesus say, "I go to my Father's house to prepare a place for you.) Meanwhile the bride also begins a period of preparation. There is sewing to do and lessons in being a wife. There is preparation for the day her bridegroom will come again to take her to his home where the two shall become one (in ritual marriage) and where the marriage will be consummated.

At the end of about a year (the groom's  Father makes sure his Son does not do a haphazard job on the new addition just so he can get to his bride sooner!), on a day and at an hour the bride does not know, the groom comes with his friends. They bear torches, blow the shofar, and announce, "The Bridegroom comes" --- just as we hear in Friday's Gospel. The bride's attendants come forth with their own lamps and, with the entire town, accompany her to her new home. The marriage of this bride and groom symbolizes (in the strongest sense of that term) the marriage of God to his people achieved on Sinai. Thus, the service the bridesmaids and groomsmen do for these friends is also a service they do for Israel and a witness to God's ineffable mercy and covenant faithfulness.

On Waiting and preparing to be Surprised: The Life of Prayer

We are each called to be spouses of Christ. Christ has gone to his Father's house to prepare a place for us and we are called to spend the time between our betrothal and the consummation of this marriage in joyful preparation and waiting for that day. In other words, everything we do and are is to be geared to that day. One response to this reality is to develop a prayer life and commit to a life of prayer. (I would argue we are all called to this but that a solid prayer life and even a life of prayer looks different depending on the context and our state of life. For instance, a life of prayer in a family looks differently than a life of prayer in a hermitage.) This parable describes very well for me the dynamics of a life of prayer. Simultaneously it describes the celebratory nature of genuine waiting because prayer implies both waiting for and waiting on.

We all know both kinds of waiting. Neither is always easy for us. We wait for our moment before the cashier in grocery stores lines and are unhappy we have to be there. We look at magazines in the nearby racks, shift restlessly from foot to foot,  fall prey to impulse buys of small items located in front of us for precisely this reason, and get more irritable by the moment. (Waiting is hard because it means some form of incompleteness and lack of control; thus we impulse buy to get a sense of completion, control, etc.) We tell ourselves we have better things to do, that our time is important -- often more important, we judge, than that of the person standing in front of (or behind!) us. (There's the specter of entitlement and narcissism that so plagues our culture. The whole dynamic of waiting reminds us we are not the center of the universe and it is not easy to take sometimes.) We fill our time, our minds and our hearts with all kinds of things to distract us from waiting; at the same time we thus prevent ourselves from being open to the new and unexpected.

Similarly waiting on others is not always easy either. Wait staff in restaurants sometimes resent the very guests they are meant to serve; work keeps them from their "real  lives".  And some of these wait staff take it out on those they are meant to serve. Whether this means allowing some to go unserved while waiters talk on cell phones, or arguing with and blaming customers, or actually doctoring the dishes served at the table, putting nasty comments on the bill, etc. waiting on others can be challenging and demanding; our own inability to wait on God is an important reason we fail to pray as we are called to. We may fail at this out of ignorance; we may not know prayer is about putting ourselves at God's disposal rather than expecting God to be at ours. We may be unwilling or resistant to putting ourselves at God's disposal or to order our lives around this relationship as fully as we know we ought.

Again, in prayer we both wait for and wait on God. We wait for God and allow him the space to love and touch us as he will. We wait in the sense of the bride, knowing both that she is betrothed and thus wed to her groom while recognizing and honoring as well that the consummation of this relationship (and the proleptic experiences we occasionally have while waiting) come to us inevitably but at moments when we do not expect them. The temptation of course is to do as we do in the Safeway checkout line: fill our time with unworthy activities, seek distractions which relieve the tension of waiting, allow entitlement and impulsivity to replace patience and perseverance. But when we do not succumb to temptation, in prayer we wait for God. We wait in the sense of those preparing for something greater which we cannot even imagine. In other words, we wait as persons of hope whose ultimate union with our beloved is already begun and remains promised and anticipated in everything we say and do. We wait to be surprised by the one we know will come. And when we do, everything and everyone entering our purview will fire us with anticipation, will look, at least for a moment as the one we are awaiting. Each one may be the bridegroom, or his messenger, or someone with word of him and his own preparations. Each one bears promise and becomes a symbol of our hope.

At the same time we wait for God in Christ, we wait on God. Our prayer is not merely a matter of seeking God, much less of asking God for favors --- though it will assuredly and rightly include pouring out our hearts to him. Still, we are called to leave behind the prayer that is self-centered and adopt that which is centered instead on God's own life and will. Mature prayer is first of all a matter of making ourselves available to serve God so that his own love may be fulfilled, God's own plans realized, the absolute future he summons all of creation to may culminate in him and the Reign of sovereignty he wills to share with us is perfected. Again, in prayer we prepare to be surprised by that which we already know most truly and desire most profoundly. As in the Transfiguration we prepare to be surprised by that which has been right in front of us all along.

In the life of prayer and discipleship both waiting for and waiting on God take commitment, diligence, and attentiveness. Both require patience and persistence.  It is to this we are each and every one of us called. No one can do this for us. The fuel and flame of our hearts and prayer lives is something only we can tend, only we can steward this fire in patient and joyful preparation for our Bridegroom's coming. It is in this that the foolish virgins failed and the wise virgins succeeded. The question Jesus' parable poses to us is which will we ourselves be, wise or foolish?