The Midnight Wedding
We are betrothed, but are we ready for consummation?
“Alas, for you, who desire the day of the Lord! It is darkness not light.”
Amos’ words are apt as the days shorten and the Church prepares to move into the dark purple vesture of Advent. For as the clergy never tire of telling their flocks, Advent is not primarily a time of preparation for the celebration of Christmas, but a wake up call to prepare for the second coming of Christ at the end of time. We ”know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13) That much the Lord makes clear. He will come like a thief in the night.
In Matthew 25, Our Lord compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding. Ten bridesmaids are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, but they fall asleep. He startles them by arriving in the night. The five wise bridesmaids prepared oil for their lamps for this eventuality; the five foolish ones did not. Those who were prepared join Him at the wedding feast, but the rest are left in darkness.
Continuing this motif, chapter 5 of the letter to the Ephesians identifies the bridegroom as Christ Himself, and the Church as His bride. As a man and woman become one body in marriage, so the Church are fully consummated as one body with Christ after the resurrection. In this world, we are united with Him sacramentally through the feast of Holy Communion. The word “sacrament” derives from a Latin word for an oath or vow. We might see it as the wedding vow the Lord makes to us. But in the end, all sacraments shall cease, as the Lord makes good the promise and the marriage is finally and fully consummated. The bridegroom whom we now see as in a mirror, dimly, we will then see face-to-face, and perfectly reflect the joy of His countenance, just as He eternally reflects His Father’s. The ultimate consummation is to be immersed in the overflowing love of the Holy Trinity.
Gracing the sacraments, the Holy Spirit lifts us towards that consummation even now. But there is darkness in the detail. We are betrothed, but not yet wed. In the parable, the groom arrives early and unexpectedly, in the middle of the night. This is a symbolic inversion of the moment He made his proposition, not on His knees, but on the Cross. At the moment when our Lord offered his life for the world, the midday sun was eclipsed and the day turned black as night. But when He comes to make good the promise and consummate the marriage, He will come blazing into the night and make it light as day.
Jesus’ parable makes clear what that night means. Remember that all ten bridesmaids, whether wise, or foolish, fell asleep. The sleep, therefore, is that which awaits us all: the sleep of death. And like the wise and foolish virgins, both those who have been faithful to Christ and those who have been unfaithful will all die. He will come in the dead of night, to rouse up all the dead from their sleep. But those who did not prepare the oil for their lamps will be left in darkness, and even those who have oil will be unable to share it with them at that time, any more than Lazarus could help Dives. It will be too late. The door to the marriage feast will be shut.
Lest this sounds harsh, let me try to put it another way. Our world is sick, and the sickness is sin. Christ the Healer has given the Church the remedy for that sickness, but as with any remedy, there is a limited window of time in which it is effective. That timeframe is our mortal life. In the Church, Our Lord offers us his own body and blood as the medicine of eternal life in the Sacrament of the altar. But as with any medicine, there is a prescribed way of taking it, and there are things that you can do to make it ineffective. There is no point in glugging down your antibiotics with half a bottle of whisky, or putting on several stones of excess weight before going for surgery on your internal organs. There are practices of good health that are needed for the treatments to be effective. We have to follow the doctor’s orders. And for the spiritual medicine of the Eucharist, those instructions are clear: baptism, repentance, and virtuous living, care for the sick, needy, and outcast, are necessary preparations to enjoy the full effects of the medicine. We might see them as healing herbs giving medicinal properties to the oil of the wise virgins.
One final image may help. In sundry places of Scripture, God reveals Himself in fire and light. God appeared to Moses in a spiritual fire: I say spiritual because unlike physical fire, it did not consume the bush it appeared to burn. St James calls God the Father of Lights. Saint Paul saw our Lord on the road to Damascus in a blaze of glory, as Peter, James and John had done before him on Mount Tabor. The Spirit, too, descended at Pentecost in the form of tongues of fire. So we are justified in seeing God, among other images, as a burning fire. When we finally come face-to-face with that fire after the Resurrection, the way we experience it will depend on how used to its heat we have become in our lifetime. We may receive it as a warming, nourishing, giving glow of radiant glory. On the other hand, we may receive it as a burning, searing, blinding light that darkens our vision. Many of us, I suspect, will be somewhere between those two extremes: but it is the same blazing fire with which we will all come face to face.
Think of going on a holiday in the Sun. If you have spent the entire winter wrapped up indoors and suddenly step out into the blazing heat, you will get sunburnt quickly. To acclimatise yourself to the heat, you need to apply sunscreen so that the rays do not hurt you. This is something like baptism and, thereafter, the Eucharist. You then need to go out bit by bit and get gently used to the rays. This is the exercise of works of charity and mercy in the world. Once in a while, you will most likely get burnt anyway, and will need some aftersun to salve you. This is the Sacrament of Penance. Approach the sun in this way, and you will get a pleasant tan and become able to enjoy the heat. Well, the Sun of Righteousness is shining all around. The glory of God is here among us, in the Blessed Sacrament, and in the faces of the needy and troubled. We can get used to it, start to approach it now, or we can ignore it and shut ourselves up inside with the aircon on. But if we do that, we can only expect it to burn and blind us when the bridegroom’s tread shakes the walls we have built and breaks them down.
“Watch,” calls the Bridegroom: “Sleepers, awake!” The call is urgent. This brief lifetime is our window for treatment for our sickness, for acclimatisation to the light, for preparation for the coming of the bridegroom. Today might be the last day before any one of us falls into death’s sleep. Today could be the last chance we have to help the neighbour in need. Today could be the last chance we have to show our families that we love them. Today could be the last chance we receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, the healing medicine for eternal life. Let us then determine to receive it worthily, anointed with the oil of the Holy Spirit.