Wisdom 6.12-16 or Amos 5.18-24; Psalm 70 or Canticle: Wisdom 6.17-20; 1 Thessalonians 4.13-end; Matthew 25.1-13
Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
DURING the 1920s and ’30s, archaeologists discovered a site at Dura-Europos, in Syria, buried in 256 by a Roman army. It has become famous as the earliest known Christian house church.
Its frescoes were taken back to the Yale University Art Gallery, and have been studied in detail for what they can tell us about the way this early community used scripture visually to interpret their liturgical life. A partially reconstructed scene, in what is believed to have been a baptistery, shows a party of torch-bearing women carrying objects in their hands and heading towards a white structure.
This has long been understood as the women going to the tomb on Easter morning to anoint the body of Jesus. Recently, art historians and theologians have raised the possibility that the women represent the wise and foolish bridesmaids of Matthew’s parable.
Michael Peppard agrees that the women are carrying torches (the correct rendition of the Greek lampas), but that they have bowls of oil, not ointment for a corpse. For the worshippers — and especially those preparing for baptism — their story was a parable of ready response to the Christian calling and a journey into relationship with Christ.
Peppard contends that the figures evoke both candidates walking in procession to their baptism, possibly carrying the oil of anointing, and the baptised as brides of Christ, ritually anointed before they entered the bridal chamber. He reminds us that the baptised were called the photizomenoi or illuminati: the enlightened ones (The World’s Oldest Church: Bible, art and ritual at Dura-Europos, Syria, Yale, 2016).
Cyril, the fourth-century Bishop of Jerusalem, would tell those enrolling for baptism at the beginning of Lent that they were standing in the outer hall of the palace. They had been escorted by the bridesmaids’ lamps. Now, they had 40 days to discard their dirty clothes for clean white garments before Jesus, “the bridegroom of souls”, appeared at Easter, when they would be baptised (Catechetical Lecture 1).
This is a very different way of reading the parable from the way it is customarily understood. There are no warnings about being ready to face Christ as judge; nor is there much discussion of the fate of the bridesmaids who did not have a supply of oil.
Peppard notes, however, that the story is of a piece with other instances of separation in Matthew: the wheat and the weeds; the good and bad tenants; the properly and improperly dressed wedding guests; and the sheep and the goats (Matthew 13.24-43, 21.33-46, 22.1-14, 25.31-46). Baptismal preparation would have laid emphasis on the high standards expected of those presenting themselves as candidates. Not being ready for the bridegroom meant not entering the nuptial chamber of the baptistery, and proceeding from there into the banquet of the eucharist.
Yet the only real distinction in the parable is the amount of oil that each bridesmaid was carrying. Since all of them had gone to sleep, the reward was not for alertness. Brendan Byrne proposes that the oil stands for the “surpassing righteousness” that the Gospel has commended earlier (Matthew 5.20). Having this meant not worrying about being caught asleep when the Lord came (Lifting the Burden, Liturgical Press, 2004).
A literal-minded reader might still want to know how much oil it took to keep a torch burning, and why, if those with oil had more than enough, they could not have shared their supply with their colleagues. It is that fundamental lack of generosity in the narrative, the picture of salvation as being a case of every woman for herself, that strikes an uncomfortable note.
Paul’s reassuring advice to the Thessalonians signals in the direction of generosity where the Gospel seems to take a rigid position. He is unspecific about the identity of “those who have died” and “the dead in Christ” (1 Thessalonians 4.14, 16). All he promises is that Christ has the arrangements in hand, and that those who trust in Christ do not need to expend time in worrying. Grief for the dead is a natural and commendable human emotion, but it is entitled to walk hand in hand with hope.
This is consonant with the description of wisdom offered in today’s optional Old Testament reading and canticle. Wisdom is a developing virtue, and one of its characteristics is the desire for instruction. Wisdom is knowing that we do not know, and being ready to commit ourselves to a path that leads to a “kingdom” (Wisdom 6.17-20). That path will include judgement: we are not invited to be complacent.
But Sunday’s collect encourages us to hope that the God who will be our judge, and for whom our lives should be shaped in readiness, comes with the desire not to destroy, but to restore all things in Christ.