You don’t see it much nowadays because many parish priests don’t like the mess it makes, but confetti used to be thrown at many weddings as the bride and groom emerge from the church after exchanging their vows. In the days before confetti the Italian custom of throwing sugared almonds was popular: the symbolism there being that marriage is very often a mixture of sweetness and bitterness. Since the introduction of confetti the sweetness and bitterness motif has been transferred to the almond paste on the wedding cake which serves to remind the couple of the nature of married life which follows. There are more traditions and customs associated with weddings than almost any other event in human life: for example it’s considered bad luck for the couple to meet before the ceremony on their wedding day, the lucky horseshoe, the cake cut by both at the reception, and many a bride is still guided by the rhyme, “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Then there’s the one that bridegrooms dislike most: the bride arriving late; there’s always an anxious moment wondering if she’s changed her mind at the last minute.
Every society has developed its own customs surrounding marriage. The Jews of Our Lord’s time were no exception. In Jewish society it was the bridegroom who was traditionally late. In fact, the later he was for the wedding, the more respect he showed for the bride’s family. The tradition was that a group of young girls would wait for the bridegroom outside the wedding hall, and it was their task to escort him on the last lap of his journey. It was considered a great privilege to be a bridesmaid and to light the way for the groom.
In a nutshell, this explains the customs and symbolism behind today’s parable. The message of the story can be summed up in two words so familiar to those of us who were Scouts or Guides: “Be Prepared”. Our Lord says, “Stay awake, because you do not know the day or the hour.” The ‘hour’, of course, is the moment when the divine bridegroom comes at the end of our lives and at the end of time. Now we are not to prepare for that moment by anxiously keeping both eyes open for Our Lord’s arrival, for that would end up with our doing nothing else. Rather, our preparation should take a form of constant readiness so that when the bridegroom does come we can confidently go out and meet him, lamp in hand, all ready for him.
St. Paul preaches the same message in his Letter to the Thessalonians. St. Paul had great success preaching the Gospel in Thessalonica with the result that many Jews converted to Christianity. The Jewish leaders plotted against Paul and so he left the city and fled to Corinth where he waited for news from his fledgling church in Thessalonica. When Paul heard the news from Timothy that the church there was as strong as ever he was moved to write the first of two letters to the church there.
Two questions in particular had been disturbing the converts in Thessalonica. What was the date of the Last Day? And what would happen to those who died before they could witness the Last Day? Well, in next Sunday’s extract from his letter St. Paul tells us that “the Day of the Lord is going to come like a thief in the night.” It would be another 20 years before these words of Our Lord would be recorded in St. Matthew’s Gospel.
St. Paul’s concern was exactly the same as Our Lord’s. On the one hand, ‘watchfulness’ for the Lord’s coming shouldn’t mean ‘idleness’. Preparing for the Lord wasn’t to be an excuse for opting out of daily affairs and responsibilities. On the other hand, we should also be aware of being lulled into a false sense of security so that we put off our preparation for the Lord’s coming to another day. As the saying goes, “don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.”
And so to be practical, how can we live in a state of readiness for the death which might be just around the corner, or 50 years away? Well, an essential part of the Christian life is to live each moment to the full. So often we treat time as the ‘enemy’ and as something to be ‘killed’.
There is a valuable Christian tradition – older than most of our customs surrounding weddings – to examine one’s conscience each evening as part of our night prayer.
Prayer has often been described as ‘wasting time with God’. What better way is there to use up all those spare moments we may have during the day? Such prayer takes no time at all and it becomes a fuel to fire our daily lives. And not only that, prayer prepares us to meet the bridegroom when he comes to invite us to the wedding banquet at the end of our life.