1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Have you noticed that the Christmas Ads are unusually early this year? Is it me? Do you notice it too? Every ad I see on tv, and even when I open the app on my phone to purchase a Starbuck’s coffee, it is snow, jingle bells, and Santas. I’m not sure what I’m taking to the family Thanksgiving gathering yet…and Starbucks tells me to come in between Nov. 9-13, purchase a holiday drink (peppermint something I guess) and I’ll get one free one to share….”Spread the cheer,” it says. Now, I recognize that this is the early commercial part of Christmas, I get that….but, even though the holidays are my time of year, but I’m not ready yet. I don’t feel that I’ve waited.
We live in a culture that doesn’t like to wait. Not in lines, not for our mail or for our orders to reach us, and certainly not in traffic. Now is better than later, we feel. Children especially suffer from this difficulty. When my children were young, I remember a cartoon I found and taped to my fridge. A little boy holding a sign that said, “Instant Gratification isn’t fast enough…” I always liked that because it spoke truth as I knew it then. Mommy, when is dinner? My birthday? When will school be out for the summer? And, of course, when is Santa coming? Never soon enough. . . but this is not just children. I think we all wish our desires were met faster.
The Bridesmaids in today’s gospel had to wait. The lesson from Matthew we heard today is Jesus teaching about the future, the forthcoming theocracy, the Kingdom of God,
and he uses this parable of the ten bridesmaids to teach about that time for which we must wait. It is a story that is told only in Matthew.
The girls, ten of them, were young, marriageable teenagers. Five of them, it says, were clever, and five of them dull-witted, but they were all waiting for a bridegroom’s return home with his bride.
In first-century Palestine, families practiced patrilocal marriage. The bride moved into the home the groom had prepared, which would have been adjacent to that of his father. The key moment in the long wedding celebration was the point at which the groom went, with his relatives, to the family home of the bride to bring her back to his home. It would have been there that the remainder of the wedding celebration would take place, and it would have been there, at the groom’s new home, that the young women in this parable appear to have been waiting for the groom to arrive. As wedding attendants at the groom’s house, the girls would have been expected to greet him and his party, to light their path, and then to take part in the merriment as all awaited the consummation of the marriage (as indicated by blood on the sheets…) Then the feasting would have followed!
The point of it, to those first-century ears, would have been to be prepared for the event of the coming theocracy. Keep your wicks trimmed. Matthew’s listeners would have heard, in Jesus’ parable, that they must be ready for the Messiah to return, a time for which they were all waiting.
The problem was that the foolish bridesmaids were not ready for the task at hand. In their vulnerable human state, they were subject to failures. At the very darkest time of the night, midnight, the groom (with his bride) shows up. And, due to the late hour, all had
been sleeping, but when awakened, some were ready and others not and those who were not were then shut out of the festivities. We are left wondering about what Jesus meant in this story. Aren’t we all invited?
It is important, I think, to note that all these young women fell asleep, the wise and the foolish. They were all entrusted to do something – to be there and be ready – and they all fell asleep. They all were asked to wait, and they did, despite the tediousness of the task. They waited in place…and, after a time, they closed their eyes. It is like that for all of us…we are asked by God to do things, and we often fall asleep on the job. Our human nature, at times, interferes with our deep and abiding desire to serve God.
It’s the oil that is the question…who has some and who doesn’t? Oil, that causes a flame and a light to light in the darkness. And why, I wonder, wouldn’t those who had some oil share it with those who didn’t have some? Wouldn’t there have been more light from ten lanterns, even burning at a low flame, than from five burning brightly? And…wouldn’t there have been more people present to share in the celebration of the marriage? So, I wonder if the coming of the Kingdom of God is about waiting, or about living faithfully in the present as we wait. Waiting, after all, is having faith in what is not yet here.
Last week, Michael and I received some wonderful photos of Juliette and the rest of her Dutch family – all of whom visited us late last summer. The shots were taken on a dark night in Utrecht, where they live. 4 year-old Juliette was gazing with awe at large, white, lit-from-within paper structures that appeared to be parading down a very dark street. They were taking part in a custom that is celebrated around the world, the Feast of St. Martin, and, as Karin, our long-time-ago exchange student/daughter described it – they were whim
sical bright forms moving in a line down an unlit street accompanied by wonderful music – lively, and I thought about this parable, and of light in the darkness.
St. Martin of Tours is a beloved saint. When Martin was a young man, he was a Roman soldier. One dark night, he was riding his horse at a rapid pace through wind and snow, and he came upon a poor, naked beggar. Martin, not yet converted, not yet baptized…and a pagan, perceived something in this man of little means, and he stopped and cut his own garments in half, and gave the poor beggar half of what he was wearing and then rode on. That night, as Martin slept, he had a dream, in which a vision of Christ stood before him and he spoke to an angel saying, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clothed me.” When Martin awoke, he sought out instruction in the Christian faith and was then baptized. Years later, he was ordained, and served as Bishop of Tours, where his relics rest today. Yesterday, November 11, also known to us as Armistice Day, is the Feast Day of Martin. For, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on the feast of the true Christian soldier, who preferred Christ’s peace and love over war, who saw light in the darkness…. in the year 1918, the first World War came to a halt with the signing of the Armistice.
We remember St. Martin by lighting large paper creatures from within, because of his caring for a poor and needy man. His is the story of one who chose to embrace need rather than speed. Martin saw God’s light, God’s presence in this poor beggar. He stopped when he might rather have sped on to his destination. Delay was not the focus…helping and light and life were more important.
Martin has been associated with Advent, a season of waiting and preparation.
Throughout the early years of the history of the church Advent developed with different customs. It was always a season of waiting, of preparation, and of fasting, though not as strictly as Lent was.
Somewhere around the year 581, the church decided that this period of pre-Christmas preparation should extend from the 11th of November to the Nativity. The practice of beginning what we now call Advent on November 11th was widespread and was associated with the feast of St. Martin. The tradition of Martinmas, is celebrated in many countries with a rich meal centered around a nice roasted goose…and is analogous with Mardi Gras, which precedes the long time of waiting for Easter. Advent, now is just the four weeks prior to Christmas – not as long – not so much waiting, but Martin is very much tied in with Advent, especially in his choice of serving, of seeing the light in all people, but especially to individuals who may be living in the dark.
Patience, my mother reminded me often, is a virtue. The 10 bridesmaids, some with oil, some without, all waited, for refusing to wait, denies the possibility of what is to come – and in this case, it is the good news of God in the coming Reign of God. Those who waited for Jesus in the early church knew the importance of waiting and they knew the importance also of bringing light and life to world as they waited, just as Martin of Tours did. May we follow their good example, and be lights in the darkness, always seeing God’s presence in those around us.