By Mac Stewart
There’s a wonderful story about an ancient Christian monk named Arsenius, who lived a long time ago in the deserts of Egypt. They say that on Saturday evenings, Arsenius would stand up, turn his back to the setting sun, and stretch out his hands toward heaven in prayer to God, and he would stand like that until, at dawn on Sunday, the rising sun lit up his face — and then he would sit down.
Arsenius was performing a very extreme version of an ancient Christian practice called the “watch.” The idea is that you stay up for part (or all) of the night, when the world is dark and sleepy, learning to sit still and wait patiently and attentively for what you trust will come — the dawn of a new day. The practice originates, of course, with Jesus, who, during the night of his agony in the Garden of Gethsemani, told his disciples to stay with him, to watch and to pray. This is why many churches still observe a “watch” during Holy Week: after the last celebration of the Eucharist on Maundy Thursday, people will take turns watching with the Blessed Sacrament at the altar of repose, all the way until dawn on the morning of Good Friday.
Jesus tells us a parable today that is about watching. “The kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins, who took their lamps and went forth to meet the bridegroom” (Matt. 25:1). Five were wise; five were foolish. The wise took oil with them for their lamps; the foolish had too many other things to carry. Well, wouldn’t you know it, the bridegroom decided to come at night.
Now, if you’re in a dark room, especially if this room has only ever been dark so long as you’ve been in it, then even if you hear a knock at the door, you’re not going to know where the door is, unless you can find some light. The wise virgins were ready for this: when they heard the knock, they brought out their oil, kindled their lamps, and — behold! — they could see the door, respond to the summons, and walk through to the marriage feast. Alas, not so for the foolish: they failed to bring along the one thing that would enable them to see when they needed to, and they miss their chance.
It’s interesting to notice, though, that, although five of the virgins were wise and five were foolish, “they all slumbered and slept” (Matt. 25:5). Drowsiness is a common theme in the Bible. You’ll remember that Jonah, after he ran away from the Lord’s call and hopped on a boat to the other side of the world, was found by the mariners in the hull of the ship, fast asleep.
The prophets accused the leaders of Israel of “loving to slumber” (Isa. 56:11). And, of course, in the very moment when our Lord asked his disciples to “watch” with him in the garden, their heavy eyes got the better of them. We know this feeling very well, I think, especially around this time of year. The mornings are getting darker, the air is getting cooler, and when our alarm goes off at 6 a.m., it’s hard to call to mind one good reason why we should leave the soft den of warmth underneath the comforter. Everything in your drowsy body is pulling you back down into the blissful ignorance of the dream world.
That’s a little bit what our lives in this world are like. The blissful darkness of sin and ignorance is constantly tugging at us, attempting to lure us back into its apparently warm and comfortable embraces. It seduces us into closing our eyes to anything except what will supposedly secure our health and wealth. It entices us with a convenient grogginess about the pain and suffering of our neighbors. And it coaxes us into a habitual insensitivity to the unceasing action of God all around us. We have heavy eyes, and it’s very hard to resist hitting the snooze button and drifting back to sleep.
Jesus’ parable today reminds us that, one day, there will be a great wake-up call. The resounding blast of the trumpet will pierce through the haze of our drowsiness, and, like a thief in the night, the bridegroom whom we’ve been waiting for all our lives (even if we didn’t know it) will suddenly come knocking at the door. Whether we’ll be able to see the door, to light our lamps in order to find our way to it, will depend on whether we have some kind of oil.
What is this oil? In the Old Testament, oil is what the prophets used to anoint the kings of Israel. The words Messiah and Christ just mean “anointed one,” and it’s this royal anointing, this kingly oil, that we’re pointing to in one way or another whenever we use oil in our liturgical life. There’s a prayer that priests will often pray when they anoint someone in the hospital with oil on their foreheads in the sign of the cross for healing: “As you are outwardly anointed with this holy oil, so may our heavenly Father grant you the inward anointing of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit is the one who came down in the form of a dove on our Lord at his baptism, anointing him as the King who would bring good news to the poor, and he, the Holy Spirit, is the same one who sealed you in your baptism, and came to dwell in you as his own temple. He stirs in you every time you come to this altar, every time you wake up in the morning and get on your knees to pray, every time you set aside your own plans to show some small act of love to someone who is suffering; and he is the oil who will lighten your lamp and lead you to the door when Jesus finally knocks.
We don’t know when that final knock will come (that’s the point of the bridegroom coming at midnight in the parable — a time when you least expect it). But we don’t need to, because even now, in the seemingly mundane, routine drowsiness of our everyday lives, the bridegroom taps on the doors of our hearts. Sometimes these taps are quiet, subtle, discreet, such that we barely notice them. Sometimes they are blatantly obvious, as when some major disruption throws our lives into disarray.
It’s certainly the case that we can never plan for these knocks, any more than we can plan for the Final Knock at the end of all things. Even the little knocks come at unexpected times, in unexpected places, and in the form of unexpected people. But we can — and we must — watch for these knocks. We must stand on our toes, with our faces toward the east, eagerly and expectantly awaiting the rising Sun whenever he may choose to appear in our lives.
And the oil that we will need in order to respond to the Final Knock on the Last Day is the very same oil that we should be carrying around all the while in the meantime for all the little knocks: the oil of the Holy Spirit, kept well-stocked within us by the habits of prayer, fasting, and works of mercy.
There’s a truth about human nature that we should never forget. A human being only becomes fully himself, fully human, when he is awakened by the love of someone else. It’s very hard for children to come fully to life, to a healthy, flourishing maturity, unless they’re brought into the world with love, with care, with tender affection. That love is what awakens them. It calls forth from them their own freely willed love, once they’ve reached an age that they can actively respond, an age of “responsibility.”
St. Augustine would often say that what love loves is love. When someone shows me some gratuitous kindness, some real love, it usually increases my affection for them, it awakens my love for them. I had a housemate once who would often fold my laundry for me without telling me. He wanted no credit for it — I usually didn’t even know it was he who had done it unless a different housemate told on him. He did it out of pure, gratuitous love. When I would walk into my room and see my clothes unexpectedly folded very neatly on my bed, I would feel a surge of warmth toward my friend, an infusion of affection for him in my heart.
The truth, of course, is that the only love that really awakens us, the only love that can call forth the fullness of what we are as human beings, is the love that was poured out for us on the Cross. This is the love that knocks on the door, that rouses us from our slumber with the cry, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light” (Eph. 5:14).
In one of the prayers for the Church that we pray each week, we ask God to open the eyes of all people to behold his gracious hand in all his works, that rejoicing in his whole creation, we may honor him with our substance and be faithful stewards of his bounty. That is what it means to watch. That is what the anointing oil of the Holy Spirit enables: to behold God’s gracious hand in everything, to see in every breath that we breathe the gratuitous kindness of our divine Lover, to love that love in response, and therefore to be ready in an instant to run to the door when he knocks.
The Rev. Mac Stewart is priest associate at All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase, Maryland.