Keep awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
That’s another way of saying, Be ready. Any day now the Bridegroom is coming again. So keep your hearts open, and your lamps burning.
When you think about it, a lamp is an amazing vessel. Made to hold a saving piece of the sun before you when night falls hard. Lamplight is a human endeavor, more ancient than the flashlight or the cellphone with its luminous rectangular face illuminating our faces. Moonlight reminds you the dark has always had a face. It’s God’s gift to us. Lamplight, though, is how we came up with a way to see when the moon and the stars weren’t bright enough. Lamplight is how we overcame our fear of the dark.
I have a lamp here. A friend gave it to to me. It’s an ancient little light found in southern Syria in an early Christian cemetery where it had been placed on All Saints Day. It was and is a sign of light in the darkness. A sign of readiness, too. A sign of human beings tending the flame of Christian hope.
It humbles me to imagine people tending lamps like this in days that were darker than our own. And I mean this literally, not figuratively, because this lamp was made before the invention of electricity, before we thought we could manage the mysteries of life. It humbles me to imagine this lamp set out in vigil among the dead like a candlelight proposal. Like communion with Jesus the Bridegroom. Like love you can’t explain. Like something miraculous.
We don’t do enough things like that. We mostly do things that make sense to us. We turn off the lights when we go to bed, and turn them on in the morning, believing we’re the stewards of power.
The parable of the bridesmaids is about being ready for Jesus. It’s not about controlling what happens next because God doesn’t punch a clock. Never has. God is unmanageable. Our task is not to manage God. Our task is to have faith in his unmanageable love. You never know the day or the hour when he’ll show up in his almighty glory. Nor can you know the day or the hour when his light will break in on the darkness of your own life.
We’re not here to manage God. And we’re not here to manage each other either. The light of God is God’s to shine, when and where God will. Ours is the task of tending it, bearing a small and holy piece of it here and now in the many little ways we love like he loved. The maids whose lamps go out were not ready for that feast. They run off in search of oil and return to a closed door. And though they ask the Lord to open it, that door is really theirs to open. This, too, is about being ready.
Are you ready for the feast of God’s love? Are you awake to God’s unmanageable love in your life? Is there somebody God loves you can’t forgive?
God’s love is right here, right now. You only have to open your heart to receive it and quit trying to control it. That’s what forgiveness looks like. It looks like letting go of trying to manage the force of love. It looks like being ready for Jesus to come again at any moment and find you dancing cheek to cheek with somebody you forgot to love. Or didn’t know how to love. It looks like being ready for God’s love to fill your love with an unmanageable hope.
I’m reminded of a boy I once met, a boy named Harlan who held on to the hope of his mother’s release from prison. Though it must have hurt him, he lived in perfect readiness for her return and no power at all to arrange it. I know this because one day I drove him to visit his mother two hours away in Tutwiler Prison with his grandmother riding in the backseat.
The whole way there he kept playing with his cell phone, flipping the case open and shut, open and shut, playing at the keyboard. Though his grandmother frequently registered her disapproval, finally telling him to put that thing away, I found his cellphone strangely reassuring, a sign that maybe he was okay after all, just like all the other kids, still living a boy’s life.
When we got to Tutwiler, they went inside the prison through the barbed wire gate, and told me to come back in two hours, which I did. For a long time after they got back in the car, they hardly said a word.
But then, more than halfway home, Harlan realized he’d left his cellphone back in the prison, and asked me if I’d turn around so he could go get it. Before I could answer, his grandmother delivered a fierce scold: No one pays that bill anymore, she said to him. It doesn’t work like it used to and even if it did, you still couldn’t call your mother.
And glaring at me in the rearview, she added, I don’t know why he wants to hold on to a broken thing like that.
But Harlan pushed back. The clock works, he cried. If I keep it charged, it still tells time. Can’t talk to anybody, but it can still tell time, and anyway Mama’s the one gave it to me, not you.
That phone was lamplight to that boy. He kept it charged. It’s how he held on to the hope of his mother’s return. And yes we drove back to the prison so he could get it. Like that hopeful child claiming the unlikely gift of a disconnected cell phone — counting time by the minute, aiming himself toward reunion with his mother, toward a new day breaking in on a broken day — we’re asked to be ready.
The clock works. Time is here, and enough, for us to love like Jesus loved. And from one broken bread to the next, from one feast to another, we live the mystery of faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen. And Christ will come again.
I remember Harlan because that day Jesus came again to me in the hope of a child for his mother. It’s what Jesus does. Yes, he will come again to judge the living and the dead, and in the meantime he comes again whenever we’re ready to receive his glory, whenever we hold our hearts wide open to the unmanageable gift of love.