Last Sunday of the Church Year
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If we were coming at this text apart from our fathers, we might focus on the five foolish virgins. That seems to be the textual emphasis. It is where the parable ends. While the five foolish virgins go seeking oil from the merchants, the Bridegroom comes and the door is shut. The five fools are shut out. When they seek entry they are told quite sternly, “I do not know you.” Our Lord closes the parable with a warning: “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
But Bach wrote a chorale on this text from which comes the hymn by Philip Nicolai which we just sang, “Wake, Awake.” Nicolai focuses on the wise or sensible virgins. They are not shut out. They are brought in and they are filled with joyous expectation at the midnight call.
God invented violins for Nicolai’s text and Bach’s music. Whatever whining tones they might be accused of 364 days out of the year, not today. Today they give full expression to the lusty expectation of the Bride and her unbridled joy.
The first stanza is pretty much as we have it in the hymn. It is a call to wake up and greet the Bridegroom.
But then the tenor comes in and we realize there is more going on here than simply being invited to someone else’s wedding:
“He comes, he comes!” The tenor sings, “The Bridegroom comes! You daughters of Zion, come forth. The Bridegroom comes from heaven into your Mother’s house. The Bridegroom comes like a deer, a stag, jumping down the hills. He brings the wedding feast to you. Wake up! Rouse yourselves. The Bridegroom is inviting. Look, He comes!”
It is fairly explicit. But Bach is not done. Next comes the duet of Christ and His Bride.
The Bride cries out with longing: “When will you come, my Salvation?”
Jesus replies: “I come to be your portion.”
The Bride says, “I wait with burning oil.”
Jesus says, “Open up the hall.”
The Bride says, “I open the hall.”
Then they both exclaim together: “To the heavenly feast!”
Matched with Bach’s soaring music, and those vocalic violins, it is almost erotic. Bride and Bridegroom are both eager for the joys of marriage, for the feast.
But this is a Law parable. The five foolish virgins fail. They are unprepared because they don’t think the Bridegroom is coming. The point is that He is coming and we should be prepared and alert or we will be shut out and He will say, “I never knew you.” Repent. Wake up. Don’t be a fool. The end of the Church Year should make us mindful of judgment day.
But there is Gospel here as well. The five sensible virgins also failed. Not only do the five fools look the same as the sensible, indistinguishable physically, so also the five sensible virgins look the same as the fools in their behavior. They are not morally superior. Like the disciples in the garden, they fell asleep. Yet they were brought in. They look no better than the fools, and they act no better either. But they are spared by grace. They have faith, hope. However weak they were, they still believed that He would come, and this was counted to them as righteousness.
Niccolai and Bach see even more Gospel here than that. Because this is a wedding. So theysee not simply a warning to stay awake in order to avoid punishment, but something like a child’s early morning rise in anticipation of Christmas. The Bride does not roll over or think of burrowing back into bed. She leaps for joy. “Today is the Day! I’ve waited for this my whole life.” This an incredible eagerness for her fulfillment, as much as the midnight cry, which awakes the chosen Bride. Her shame at having fallen asleep is forgotten, never noticed by the Bridegroom who sees her as perfect as His love. She even forgets herself, that she ever fell asleep in the watch, or ever ate, or ever had any other concerns or thoughts in her life at all. For she has eyes only for Him. “I wait with burning oil,” she says, “I open the hall.”
She is like the Greeks who went to Philip: “Sir, we would see Jesus.” Or Peter, James, and John who at the Transfiguration lost sight of Moses and Elijah, and saw only Jesus.
The end of the Church Year should remind us of judgment day and the Blood of Christ, poured out on Calvary and into us from the Chalice. This ought to cause us to rejoice like a Bride on her wedding day. Jesus lives and is coming back. He is coming back for us, to get you, His Bride.
“Open the hall,” says Jesus. Let us reply, as breathless as virgins eager for their beloved, “I open the hall.”
In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Pastor David Petersen