The Foolish Virgins and the Song of Songs: a Wistful Exegesis for Advent

I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. (Solomon 2:4)

I’ve never liked the Parable of the Ten Virgins, and it’s not hard to see why. I know with perfect certainty that I would be one of the ones rushing to get ready and forgetting to bring extra oil. Or remembering but not being able to find it in the chaos of my life. Or tripping and spilling it on my way. All the explanations about how the wise virgins can’t share, because the oil is personal testimony, or a relationship with God built on years of diligent prayer and scripture study, or many acts of service and a charitable heart, only leave me feeling more inadequate, more envious (and, I may as well confess, resentful) of the people I know who are disciplined and tidy and careful, whose “ordered lives confess the beauty of [God’s] peace.” (John Greenleaf Whittier–The Brewing of Soma)

My life is far from ordered: I look around and see it strewn with overly ambitious and doomed projects, dozens of journals with a single entry for January 1 (always resolving to lose the same ##@$! ten pounds!), a pantry with lots and lots of stuff for whichever meal it was time for when I went shopping (the kids always hope it’s lunch—they’ll happily eat snack packs of chips and granola bars and string cheese for every meal), piles of books I haven’t read, post-it notes reminding me of things I should have done a month ago, the stack of CDs I got out to listen to while I mopped the kitchen floor (and the still half-dirty kitchen floor, because I never did find the Bruckner motets that would have provided the necessary oomph to do the whole thing), heaps of laundry that might be concealing a small child or rodents of unusual size (but hopefully not both).

And that’s only the mess you can see; there’s worse, much worse—dank piles of unkindness, mounds of fear taller than the laundry heap, a dozen broken friendships and a few thousand broken promises, the dust of missed opportunities and decades’ worth of squandered moments, ugly streaks of sloth, memories of lies and betrayals shoved under the bed, drawers overflowing with faithlessness and disloyalty, petty resentment and meanness hidden in baskets under pretty cloths, closets full of disappointment and despair, the scum of failure and shame clinging to everything.

An invitation to a wedding would incite bouts of frenzied sepulchre-whitening—more than shame, more than penitence, even more than fear, I am animated by the constant, desperate lust for approval. I am skilled at mask-wearing, at making things look ok with safety pins and duct tape and Spanx and makeup. Even my children know how to throw all the mess from the living room into the back bedroom when the doorbell rings. Of course I would put off buying oil for the lamp until the very last minute. I don’t really want to look carefully at what is in the dark corners—everything looks better in hypocritical semi-darkness.

It’s so easy to imagine the hurry to catch up to the wise friends. I don’t even have to imagine, really; I know the pace of that breathless, frazzled really-fast-walk-in-high-heels only too well. And the pit-of-the-stomach anxiety that I’ll be found out. The tone of voice just a little too high, the clever anecdote just a little forced, the laugh just a little too loud, not quite loud enough to cover my fear that they will learn my secret, will see that I don’t have enough oil, enough talent, enough goodness, that I don’t deserve to be there, that I can’t be one of them.

And oh, the horror of the lamp going out, the moment when they really do see what a mess I am! Of course I would run away, try to buy something that would make me more like them, hurry to prop up what’s left of my pretense. All the while, I would be thinking not lovingly of the coming bride and groom or their kindness in inviting me, but with fear and shame of what the other women might say about me, and with deep dread that the bridegroom would never understand or forgive my inadequacy.

But what if that dread is terribly mistaken? What if the message of this story is the same as the Parable of the Laborers that follows it? That we have enough, that we are enough, if only we won’t hide the gifts we have, or wish for more or different ones. What if the sin is only pretending, trying to hide our few talents, believing that we can’t love or be loved by those who have more (or less) than we do? What if preparing to avoid fear at all costs is also a kind of running away? What if we all turned up our lamps to burn out as brightly and quickly and joyfully as they could, knowing that in Zion,

The sun shall be no more thy light by day; neither for brightness shall the moon give light unto thee: but the Lord shall be unto thee an everlasting light, and thy God thy glory.
Thy sun shall no more go down; neither shall thy moon withdraw itself: for the Lord shall be thine everlasting light, and the days of thy mourning shall be ended.

What if the bridegroom’s “I know you not” is not a condemnation, but an expression of regret? What if he doesn’t know me because I won’t let him? What if he really means I don’t know him, because if I did, I would wait for him. If I knew him, I would not be so afraid of the dark, or of my friends’ opinions, that I could not lose my selfish terrors to be with them in happy anticipation of feasting together with him. I would be able to be quiet, to wait, to trust, to hope, to love. I would remember that “[his] grace is sufficient” for those humble enough to wait for him in the darkness. He would bring me to the banqueting house, covered by grace, clothed in light, glorious under the banner of his love.

Comments

  1. So awesome.

    I’m reminded of Walter Brueggeman’s discussion of Yahweh as the God of the dark and the light, of what he calls “prophetic energy” and the “embrace of the inscrutable darkness.” The darkness of Pharaoh’s hardened heart is Yahweh’s peculiar way of bringing an end to his empire, an affirmation that God “works both sides of the street.” Knowledge that God’s will can prevail comes not from understanding but from submission to His mysterious power, “on the move” in the deep darkness. There is a new and unspeakable, energizing freedom in finding One who can be “trusted with the darkness” and whose power can be trusted to outflank the power of the one earthly king who ostensibly rules the light. God’s power is manifested and embodied not in the imperial court but in the child of peasants in a tiny village whose only source of light against the dark of night is celestial, unpredictable, fleeting, and otherworldly.

  2. Sublime. How impossible would it be to not be bonded to one another in love and friendship if we were all more open and authentic like this?

    “I have never been aware before how many faces there are. There are quantities of human beings, but there are many more faces, for each person has several.”

    –Rilke

  3. I love “alternative” readings of parables, especially ones that are as poignant and powerful as this one.

    Much to ponder here, Kristine. I am going to share this with a couple of people who spring to mind immediately.

    Thank you.

  4. More evidence that Kristine is truly one of the wise bloggers.

  5. “wise blogger” = jumbo shrimp :)

  6. Beautiful! Thanks for this.

  7. it's a series of tubes says:

    What if the bridegroom’s “I know you not” is not a condemnation, but an expression of regret?

    This seems accurate to me. That being said, the idea that all will be taken in, thanks to grace, seems to wrest the parable a bit.

    the moment when they really do see what a mess I am!

    I’m prepared for folks to throw fruit in my direction for bringing this reference up, but the “parable of the divers” from Following Christ was instructive for me. Apparent “scores” and pretenses in life count far less for me than they used to; facing the reality that I earn a failing grade makes it difficult to look askance at everyone else who fails, whether they fail the same way I do, or differently. Especially since I suspect that my personal “degree of difficulty” multiplier is pretty low (yet I still suck!), so most people are probably failing with mugh higher overall scores than I am!

  8. it's a series of tubes says:

    Exemplary blockquote fail, yet again.

  9. I, also-whited-sepulchre, love you and am grateful for your lamp.

  10. “What if the bridegroom’s “I know you not” is not a condemnation, but an expression of regret?”

    The older I get the more convinced I am (hopeful, at least) that this is true. Thanks.

  11. Warner Herzog does some good stuff with these parables as well. There is a real sense that withholding oil is not the best course of action, that the laborers were being exploited by a torah violating aristocrat and the chapter concludes with the son of man sitting in judgment and turning it all upside down. It is how you treat the least that is ultimately what defines your Christianity.

  12. I meant william herzog

  13. So lovely–and needed.

  14. Wow.

  15. This is beautiful. Thank you, thank you.

  16. Beautiful Kristine.

  17. Wow.

  18. One of your best, Kristine. And with a link to a Bairstow anthem, wow! Great stuff. Thanks.

  19. You know, the parable never really bothered me until I saw that painting of the 10 virgins, 5 of whom represented virtue and 5 of whom represented vices (http://gaylaprince.com/the-ten-virgins/) . Then I got thinking about the parable itself one day: http://moriahjovan.com/mojo/the-parable-of-the-ten-virgins

    tl;dr I wouldn’t have waited for a jerk who was late for his own wedding.

  20. Brave and beautiful words, Kristine. You’ve abundantly blessed us with your brilliant mind–thank you for also sharing your vulnerable heart.

  21. Beautiful post, Kristine. We all need to take time to rest transparently before God.

  22. All you need is a little ritalin.

  23. Word, E. :)

  24. Kristine this really captured so much of how I feel in my walk in the world. The contradictions, the self doubt, the confusion of meeting so much judgement and my attempts to satisfy everyone. Thanks for this. It was beautifully expressed and very wise.

  25. It’s like you have a camera in my mind. Or my house. Can’t decide which is scarier.

  26. whoa… amazing post. thank you.

  27. That was beautiful.

  28. “They also serve who only stand and wait.” Milton. Seems like you’re in good company.

  29. Alas, my brain doesn’t teem like Milton’s :)

  30. Oh, crap–that’s Keats, not Milton.

  31. Love this, Kristine.

  32. Kristine–

    Had my hand on the phone to call the police. You, or a hired footpad, had obviously been breaking and entering here, rummaging through boxes of yellowing journals, hacking your way through the bedroom clutter with a machete, gathering all sorts of incriminating evidence, interrogating the animals–

    Then: “So why am I smiling so broadly?” Phone call aborted.

  33. Oh, Elouise–the thought that there are journals to be discovered in your house fills me with glee. I may be tempted to break in myself next time I’m there :)

  34. Kristine–Be still my heart! I’d leave out a tray of brownies and milk, hang up my compression stocking, and be as nice as I know how!

  35. Semester-end brownies and poetry recitations by Elouise….mmmm….happy times.

  36. wow, this was meaningful and powerful.

  37. Lamplighter says:

    Yet again, WOW! Thank you so much for this, whatever else you may be, you can write. I will save this one.

  38. Needed (SO needed) and loved this. Thank you.

  39. Beautiful, the music, your words. This has made my Sunday, Kristine. Thank you.

  40. When I think of the “foolish” virgins, I am reminded of those who were of Galatia that Paul wrote to. Paul called them “foolish” Galatians who were bewitched from the truth, they were following the works of the law as part of salvation which made them foolish. Seeing the bible uses the keyword “foolish” in both passages, I believe there is some hidden wisdom here which connects those who were of Galatia and those “foolish” virgins. Interesting.

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