My mother’s best friend, who was a bridesmaid more than once, collected wedding disaster stories. Remember when, she would say, the bride fell down the stairs? Remember the groomsman so inebriated he stood in the wrong place? I tell couples, “Don’t worry if something goes wrong, it will just give people a funny story to tell someday.” Weddings do not run like clockwork. In the story Jesus tells, the bridegroom is SO late that the bridesmaids, whose job it is to keep the light on for him, fall asleep. When they hear him coming they get up and trim their lamps, which is to say they trim the wicks and refill their lamps with oil, to keep them burning.
Unless of course, they have no oil left.
We are left with a troubling set of possibilities. Could they really go out to the oil dealers at midnight? Why wouldn’t the wise bridesmaids share? Was Jesus really warning that people would be shut out of the kingdom of heaven? He kept talking this way in the next two parables in Matthew 25. He intended to give a shake of the shoulders to the complacent and the easy-going, I have no doubt. He intended to remind the people around him that the future might be unexpected, that delays and exhaustion might well be part of it. He warned them to be ready, whatever might happen. Be ready, no matter the chaos and confusion of everyday life. Be ready, and know what you need to stay that way.
Sometimes it feels like a long, long time. Sometimes the waiting seems unbearable. When will things be set right? When will we really see the kingdom of God? And how will we keep ourselves ready?
Not long before my (first) wedding, sleeping in my childhood bed, I woke to realize the power had gone out in my parents’ home. I thought immediately of my grandmother, who had a first-floor bedroom. I didn’t know the time; my electric clock gave no help. But I knew my night owl grandmother might still be awake. In the dark, I felt my way across the upstairs hall, carefully down the stairs, took a left into our family room, right hand waving in front of me to identify the chair, the TV, the corner of the big, brick fireplace and finally, aha—the wide mantelpiece. I felt along until my hand touched the familiar textures of cardboard, brass and wax. I struck a match and lit a candle.
By the light of the candle I made my way to my grandmother’s bedroom, where I found her still sitting up in the armchair in front of a now-darkened TV screen, relieved to see me, rejoicing to see a light. Her daughter, my mother, was the one who prepared – although she slept through the storm – leaving the matches and the candle in the plain sight of my memory, ready for a dark night.