Joshua 24.1-3a, 14-25; 1Thessalonians 4.13-18; Matthew 25.1-13
Wake, O wake!
With tidings thrilling the watchmen all the air are filling:
arise Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
‘The hour has come’, we hear them saying.
Where are ye all, ye maidens wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight, raise high your torches bright!
Alleluia! The wedding song swells loud and strong:
go forth and join the festal throng.
Those are the words of the opening verse of Philipp Nicolai’s great hymn; the basis of Bach’s wonderful cantata Wachet Auf, parts of which our choir are busy recording for Advent. It’s a hymn that takes as its inspiration the parable of the ten bridesmaids that we heard this morning. It’s often taken as a parable about the second coming of Christ, a matter of considerable importance and speculation to the early church, who, it is clear, expected that coming imminently. The parable ends, in Matthew’s telling of it after all, with the exhortation: ‘Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day or the hour.’
And yet, the parable is introduced by Jesus, as many parables are, by the phrase: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like this.’ No talk of second comings there, but of the kingdom that elsewhere Jesus has told his disciples is already among them. And the other strange thing about that final exhortation to ‘stay awake,’ is that within the parable all the bridesmaids (foolish and wise) fall asleep. To keep awake is not the issue therefore, rather that to be part of that kingdom which suddenly comes upon us is about being wise rather than foolish. We shouldn’t miss the Old Testament overtones of those words, where folly is about living as if there is no God, no purpose or meaning; and wisdom is understood to be about living within an awareness and awe of God. That foolishness and wisdom are found in the degree of preparedness, of making ready for the celebration that is to come, that will suddenly arrive.
That still begs the question, however, what that preparedness, consists in – what are the flasks of oil, if we are wise, we are asked to make sure we have stocks of? One answer of the Christian tradition is that wisdom is found in the process of remembering: that tradition itself is a school of wisdom; it is by remembering, re-telling and praying the stories of our tradition, that we stock up on wisdom, that we become prepared to see and greet the kingdom as it comes among us.
This is a Sunday when remembering looms large: not just the remembering of our own individual stories, however important those are in constructing our sense of who we are; but our collective, shared remembering: together holding the memory of those who have died in the wars of the last hundred years. Like our personal memories and the process whereby we arrive at them, such remembering is not straightforward: Remembrance Sunday can be an attempt to sanitize (or romanticize) the memories, to put them at the service a superficial patriotism, of ‘our country right or wrong’; but it also springs from a real and visceral need to remember the dead, to refuse to let their memory die also. Remembering is never straightforward, but is vital in shaping who we are, and what we long for.
Remembering is not confined to this Sunday only; it is at the heart of the church: we gather round the stories of the people of Israel, and of Christ and his disciples, re-enacting, re-membering week by week, in word and action, the tradition we are heirs to, and schooled within. In that is our wisdom. That can make the church sound inherently conservative, obsessed with the past, with the memories it inherits and re-tells. But if we characterize memories as the oil in the wise maiden’s lamps, then the point of remembering is so that we can be awake to what is happening. In a world where truth is ever more contested, and fabrications and lies become the common currency, then being anchored in truthful stories that school us in wisdom, in the ability to recognise truth when it comes, becomes ever more important. And, above all, in the Christian tradition, it enables us to be alive to the presence of the bridegroom coming amongst us; like the maidens, to wake up, and greet the coming Christ, the kingdom already amongst us. Without our stories, our common remembering, we would not recognise him; without our re-telling, the bread and wine remain bread and wine; it is the re-membering of the Last Supper which transforms them and us to recognise and receive them as Christ’s body and blood given for the life of the world.
And our remembering of the dead from the wars of the last century, as well as holding them in remembrance, refusing to let their violent death have the final word, also surely deepens our longing for peace, our conviction and desire to do all we are able to mean that the tragedy of war is never necessary again. So our remembering is not simply about looking back, but schooling us in wisdom, for the sake of the future. Christian faith is above all, centred on the memory of Jesus. The memory of his life, death and perhaps above all, his resurrection – that act of God which breaks open the endless cycle of violence, a cycle often dependent on the cherishing and holding of long memories. The resurrection reveals a God who turns our memories of violence and betrayal around, whose forgiveness, received and offered to others, breaks the hold the past can have over us. The church holds and hands on the memory of Jesus, because, in this man, we find our true home and identity; in the light of his memory, our memories are judged, and healed. Memories can both trap us (in nostalgia, in the longing to be somewhere other than here and someone other than who we are), or they can free us (by giving us an identity, a sense of self and a place in the unfolding story of God’s good purposes for God’s creation). Wisdom is found in that freedom.
Philipp Nicolai wrote his great hymn toward the end of the 16th century. He had lived through violent religious controversies – falling out with both Roman Catholics, and Calvinists; and now as the pastor of Unna in Westphalia, he found himself in the midst of the ravages of the plague. In one week in August 1597, he had to bury 170 victims; in total 1300 members of his parish died. The joyous acclamations of the hymn, and its tune, which he also wrote (although it took the genius of Bach to truly draw it out) – that joy may seem at odds with the those tragic circumstances. And yet, this is what faith offers in what otherwise would be unbearable circumstances: a drawing on a deep well of stories, of schooled wisdom, to offer hope and yes, even joy, in the hardest of times. And as we look toward Advent and Christmas, and wonder how we might offer hope and joy in our own hard, difficult times, then we need to look, our gospel suggests, to the oil in our lamps: the wisdom of our tradition, and our remembering; drawing on that deep well to strengthen our hope, and ground our joy. So that we, once more, recognise and greet the presence of Christ in our midst. Amen.