The Eleventh Bridesmaid

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

As the Church wends its way towards the end of the liturgical year, it lifts its eyes more and more from earth to heaven, from things as they are now to things as they will be. And, most importantly, on what we need to do to be ready for those will-be things when they come.

And so we have the Gospel for the 32nd Sunday of the Year (Nov. 12), Matthew 25:1-13, the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids.

The Bridegroom is coming; are we ready to greet him? In terms of the parable, it all seems to come down to our oil supply, and a wee bit of forethought in providing for it. When we read about the wise bridesmaids and the foolish ones, though, we might be a bit perplexed.

The ones with the extra oil laid up may indeed be wise, but they don’t seem to be particularly kind.

Why can’t they share? Aren’t we supposed to do that? What’s with their hard-edged response to their foolish sisters’ request?

“No! Scram! There’s not enough for us and you.” So much for Gospel charity!

But in literally the next passage of Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord will hinge our eternal salvation on I was hungry and you gave me to eat… and so forth, but I guess he didn’t say, “I was in the dark and you gave me oil for my lamp.”

What’s it about? Well, we have to remember the symbolism of all this. In Scripture, oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit.

In this application of the symbol, oil would signify the grace of God, and the bringing of ample oil for the occasion, the necessary vigilance of remaining in God’s grace, and from that, of living life as we are called to live—loving, serving, caring for the poor, keeping the commandments, praying.

From this, it becomes clear why the wise bridesmaids, even if they wanted to do so very badly, simply could not share their oil with the foolish ones.

As we all learn on our way through life, there are almost an infinite number of ways one person can help another person along on the road of life, but there is always that one thing you cannot do for another person, no matter how much you care, no matter how much you would like to.

You cannot make another person believe in God, trust him, turn to him, implore his help, surrender to his will.

All of that is both the oil in the lamp (which is only possible because of his grace in us) and what opens us up to constant replenishment of grace (the ongoing outpouring of the Spirit into our hearts).

Nobody can do this for us, and we cannot do it for anyone else. God and God alone can get into the innermost depths of a person where they in their sovereign freedom choose between wisdom and folly, and even there He (mystery of mysteries!) bows before our free will.

So that explains the not sharing part of the parable. But what’s all this business of running off to the oil merchant to get more oil and the disastrous consequences of that decision?

Oil is grace, and a well-oiled lamp is a gracious life, a life lived in the light of God, a beautiful life. Life as it should be lived, in other words.

The foolish ones in the parable have not lived as they should, and their flames are guttering, and soon their folly will be evident to everyone, most especially to the Bridegroom. They will look pretty silly waiting with darkened lamps and going out to meet him like that, right?

The mistake they make is they decide it’s more important to have a lit lamp than to meet the Bridegroom. And the calamitous mistake they make is that they run away from him to go find some other source of oil, some other way of making their lamps shiny, their lives lustrous and (seemingly) beautiful.

Well, isn’t this just like us, at least some of the time? We know we’re supposed to do this thing called life, and do it well. We have some faith, at least, so we know that doing it well means doing it as God would have us do it. Love of God, love of neighbor, trusting obedience, and all that good stuff. What all the saints did.

And … we blow it. We fall short. We don’t have enough oil (that is, we don’t trust God enough, don’t live in his mercy and grace enough).

Our lives, instead of being radiantly beautiful like the saints’, start to sputter and smoke and flame out. Something went wrong, and we are caught in our folly and improvidence for all to see. Especially, for the Bridegroom to see. And our shame is great.

The folly to cap all our follies, though, is to run off in some other direction to get oil from somewhere else (anywhere else!) to make it all at least look good.

To forget about the oil of grace coming directly from God and look for the oil of money or pleasure or worldly success or… well, you tell me. Anything so that our lives will look good to at least the casual observer.

And meanwhile the Bridegroom passes by, not just at the end of our lives or the end of the world’s life, but continually, and we are too busy scrambling at the counters of all the oil merchants the world offers us, looking for a cheap polish and a quick fix to our personal oil crisis.

The saints go marching in, but we might miss being in that number as we “take a number” and wait our turn to be served in those silly shops.

Now, I’ve always wished I could add a few more verses to this parable (meaning no disrespect to the Lord its Author!). It would go something like this:

I would like there to be an eleventh bridesmaid, another foolish one, who makes exactly the same mistake as the other five fools, lets her lamp go out, watches in dismay at its light fails.

But then, when the other five scamper off on their futile mission to buy oil, she pauses. She hears the cry, the Bridegroom is here, go and meet him.

Her lamp is all out now, a worthless hunk of sooty metal, and she hangs her head in shame, her face crimson with embarrassment.

She is about to follow the others to the merchant, but… something else stirs in her. The Bridegroom—what if she misses the Bridegroom?

All at once he is there, and the five wise ones along with the rest of the party surge forward to meet him, and precede him into the hall.

He is about to enter, and the doors are beginning to close, when he spots her. He takes in her situation in one kind glance. He holds out his hand to her, beckoning her forward.

She approaches, stumbling a bit. Tears now are flowing freely down her face, hot tears of bitter shame and sorrow for her squandered choices, her wasted life.

He draws her close to himself, pulls out a handkerchief and gently, so gently, dries her tears with it. Then he does the strangest thing. He opens her lamp and drops that rather damp cloth into it.

All at once, the lamp glows anew, twice as bright as it had before, brighter even than that of the very wisest of the five wise bridesmaids. And he draws her to himself in a deep embrace of love.

She stands up straight, her face no longer crimson, but radiant with quite another emotion, and she walks with him, hand in hand, in the sight of all the wedding party, into the hall, into the feast, his most cherished bride.

Are we wise? Are we foolish? Have we lived in grace? Have we lived in sin? The key thing is that in the end we are his, that nothing prevents us from awaiting his coming, and that we go to meet him when he comes, whether with the oil of virtue and love or the tears of repentance.

In the end of all things, all is mercy, all is grace, all is oil for the lamps that will not die out in the kingdom of heaven to which (and not only in this November month) we are turned.