Give Me Oil in My Lamp, Keep Me Burnin'!

(Mat 25:1-13 NKJV) "Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. {2} "Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. {3} "Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, {4} "but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. {5} "But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. {6} "And at midnight a cry was heard: 'Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!' {7} "Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. {8} "And the foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' {9} "But the wise answered, saying, 'No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.' {10} "And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. {11} "Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, 'Lord, Lord, open to us!' {12} "But he answered and said, 'Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.' {13} "Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.

I want to take a different look at this than is normally taken. Not that I am superseding the "standard" interpretation, for I think what I am about to share really underlies it.

To understand this parable of Jesus, we must realize the importance of a lit lamp during the night for a Jew. It was said that a person was really poor who could not buy enough oil to keep his lamp lit at night. Darkness was seen as "evil" and it was only the light of the lamp which illumined the house during the night. It was a standard necessity so that darkness would not overtake the house during the night.

In this light, it is no wonder that these virgins are considered "foolish". They failed to take care of a basic necessity: bringing enough oil to last through the night. To put it in modern terms, they took care of the flowers, the preacher, the bride's maid's gown, they were all prepared to meet the bridegroom. Almost, that is. For they were so busy taking care of what seemed to be the "important" things that they failed to ensure that something so basic as having oil for their lamps was accounted for.

Is this easier done than pointed out? Let me relate a personal "confession" of sorts that illustrates what I am talking about. As many of you know, I recently joined the Orthodox family. The Eastern Church has a beautiful series of Holy Week services which concludes with a terrific celebration of Christ's resurrection starting at 11:00 p.m. and going into the wee hours of the morning. Preceding this week, we spent forty days in prayer and fasting, humbling ourselves and repenting of our human sinfulness before our merciful God in anticipation of His saving resurrection. In other words, by the time you get to the Resurrection service, you've spent a lot of effort and energy preparing for it.

Well, as my first celebration of the Resurrection as an Orthodox Christian, I wanted to soak in as much of the experience as I could. I participated in the fasting and special services through Lent. During Holy Week, which had about 14 services all together including the Resurrection celebration, I went to each and every one. Then on top of that, when I found out that there was an all night vigil around the "tomb", I was impressed to really stay up all night which went from the Friday night service to the Saturday morning services. I figured that I had stayed up all night for much less things, and the phrase of Christ "could you not pray with me for one hour" seemed to say to me, "could you not keep up all night for Me as well?"

Now most people just sign up for one hour during the night, come and do their readings from the Gospels, and then go back home and go to sleep. But I figured that as soon as the morning service was over, I could go on home and sleep during the afternoon, and be ready for the service that night. Sure, no problem.

I had all this planned out before the wheel bearing in our van went out, stranding our van in a parking lot. I arranged for my brother to help me, and the only time available to fix it was Saturday afternoon. "Ugh," I thought. Well, it has to be done. My body will just have to put up with it.

Thus, after the Friday night service, I stayed at the church to the protest of my wife. I went through the night, doing my best not to nod off as we read through the four Gospels once and then Matthew one more time before the folks started coming in for the morning services. I made it! I knew I could do it! All I had to do was get through this service, go whip out the bearing job, and I could get some sleep. I made it through that service though my body was by now protesting loudly to the "abuse" I was putting it through. All I could think of was that Christ went through much more, so I told my body to stuff it. You can handle it.

Then I went home, and my brother and I met and worked on "whipping out" the bearing job. Well, not quite "whipping out". Did it in good time, but it was almost six o'clock by the time I got back home. No problem. Get almost four hours of sleep and enjoy the service that we had been preparing ourselves for so long now. So I set my alarm to wake us up around 9, and I quickly fell off to a sound sleep.

When I came to, the phone was ringing and it was dark. My wife jumped out of bed to get the phone. As I woke up enough to see the clock, I let out a loud wail. It was past midnight and the service had already been underway for over an hour! I was missing the Pascha service! I couldn't believe that I could let this happen. I checked the alarm clock and it was turned off. I must have turned off the alarm without really waking up, though I rarely do that. But I was very tired and that must have been what happened.

To put it mildly, I was very angry with myself. 50 days of preparing for this service, and I was missing it. Being that it was a long service (usually around three hours), I knew we still had time to catch a good part of it if we hurried. And did we hurry! But the whole time I felt like crying. Once we arrived, (most were just glad that we were alive!), it took me a while to push aside the negative feelings I was having and join in the joy of the resurrection, but somehow God helped me to do that.

Later as I reflected on this, on why God allowed me to sleep through over half of the most important service of the Church, especially my first one as an Orthodox which I wanted to be extra special, I began to realize something very critical in my walk with God. It is so easy for us to get so involved with the preparation for meeting God, that we fail to really be ready for the critical moment of that meeting. Sure, the preparation has to be done. And these things are good tools to help one to accomplish that, but when we fail to take account of how much oil we have left and whether it is enough to last through the night, something so basic and simple as being rested, awake, and ready for when the Bridegroom arrives; our focus has shifted from preparing for that meeting to how wonderful the preparations themselves are.

I would now gladly exchange that all night vigil for being on time to the Resurrection service. I should have realized that I either needed to not worry about fixing the van, or not stay up all night in order to really be rested and ready for the Resurrection celebration. But I was foolish. I failed to take account of how much oil I was going to have. Luckily for me, the church didn't have the door locked (though I understand that the early Church would have by the time I got there). I was invited in and was able to participate and take the Eucharist on this special day.

Traditionally, the oil is seen as referring to the Holy Spirit. Whatever you do, don't get so involved in all the good and proper things of the Church, whether that be special services, serving on boards and choirs, whether that be fasting and prayers, that we fail to ensure that the Holy Spirit is full and living in our hearts enabling us to be ready for when Christ does come for us. These things are good in as much as they prepare us for that meeting, but if they ever get in the way of that meeting because we make them ends in themselves...that is where the danger lies.

The lesson is, for me, to keep the important things important and not allow human pride to drain your oil in His service. We need to be in it for the long haul and part of that is pacing ourselves as we remain sensitive to the Spirit's leading and keeping first things first. And by all means...get plenty of rest before an important service! Don't be like me and miss it. There but for the grace of God go I.