I go right for the bright ones—the reds and oranges. I’m an autumn leaf peeper, drawn to the beauty of fall foliage like a bee to honey. If I’m walking, running, or driving a car my eye goes toward the colors bright and rare, that are here today and gone tomorrow. Ah, such beautiful melancholy!
Several times I’ve traveled to New England to be there for peak brightness. But like so many things in life you can’t control—like rainfall and temperature—you never know the day or the hour. Or how much it will rain when you are there! Yet I did see some stunning leaves several weeks ago and my heart was glad.
And what’s going on with the leaves here? Warm temperature into October with dull colors—no color really! Until the colder temperatures made many pop the last week. I went running by the lake on Monday and Wednesday and saw some bright oranges and reds surrounded by a lot of other dullness, and plenty green leaves still on the tree. And then on Friday, some deep burgundys next to an early snow.
Consider the five bright ones in Jesus’ parable about the ten wedding attendants. One scholar suggested that they are not bridesmaids, per se, but friends and relatives of the groom. Interesting that they are all women! The bride doesn’t appear in the parable.
The bright ones—the five wise women—have extra oil with them. The not-so-bright ones—the text calls them the foolish ones—have no such reserves. Though ten represents completeness, maybe none of the ten are exemplary. For one thing, when the groom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. Like the disciples falling asleep in the garden of Gethsemane.
The not-so-bright attendants usually get scolded for procrastinating, running out of oil and having to go buy more, and then missing the moment that mattered: the feast with the bridegroom. Yet the other five were a bit selfish, wouldn’t you say, not sharing their oil! One commentator (Audrey West) was so bold to say that the behavior of all ten attendants was so poor, you wonder how they managed to get an invitation to the wedding in the first place. What matters most is being in the company of the bridegroom. Imagine the celebration if all could have walked into the marriage feast together!
Buy remember, the problem seems to be the delay of the bridegroom. Ah, things don’t happen on our timetable. The early church had to deal with the delay of Christ’s coming again. We are always facing delays of one kind or another. And life always seems to be a bit of Advent watching and waiting.
Or vigiling through the latest tragedy or bad news. Another shooting in a church. Unending allegations of sexual misconduct. Competing philosophies on what is best for our country.
Though the oil in the parable is sometimes interpreted as good deeds, and though Jesus calls his disciples to let their light shine brightly, we become distracted and dulled by the pressures of life. Our faith loses the urgency inherent in Jesus’ message about the reign of God. It becomes something optional or secondary. A smug, feel-good that we are the bright, wise, educated, compassionate ones in contrast to the not-so-bright ones who vote, think, or pray differently than we do.
And, if we’re honest, eventually we run out of oil. Or we run out of hope. Or we run out of energy. Or we have no more reserves, no more drive to either care or shine with the brightness of God.
Instead of bright reds and oranges, all we see is dullness. Life loses its luster. Some of us face depression. Others become apathetic or cynical.
At age 39, poet Christian Wiman received a cancer diagnosis. As his heart was ripped apart he began a spiritual journey like none he had known. As fear and hope lived side by side in him, he wrote these amazing lines:
O God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this.
Wiman’s phrase “bright abyss” isn’t that different than the way wise spiritual writer Richard Rohr talks about a “bright sadness” that he sometimes sees in wonderful older people he meets. He notes how they are able to gently hold deep suffering and intense joy. As they face various losses, there is a deeper lightness and “okayness” about it all. As Rohr adds, there is “less need or interest in eliminating the negative or the fearful, making again those old rash judgments, holding on to old hurts, or feeling any need to punish other people.” There is no need to prove that my group, ethnicity, or religion is the best. Rather is it the time to give back, to share from your oil reserves, to be generative, to let your life shine brightly.
Amid the drowsiness, the dreariness, and the dullness, we keep vigil. The attendants wait for the arrival of the bridegroom. Not unlike the Easter Vigil, in which we watch for Christ to come among us and break the bands of lethargy and death.
Yet as we read in Wisdom of Solomon, our hope is not in human striving alone as that can leave us weary and worn. Wisdom is waiting to be found. She is the brightness found by those who love and seek her, those who are drawn to the beauty of the feast.
The evening is advancing. The reds and oranges fade. Christ the bridegroom comes among us this day, to awaken us and invite yet again to the feast of life. Go out to meet him, your lamps lit, sharing your oil with those who have none.
Earlier this fall, Cotton Fite, a dear friend and pastoral colleague died. He used this benediction each Sunday he presided. I think you’ll catch the brightness and the urgency:
Life is short
and we do not have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.
So be swift with love.
Make haste to be kind.
And as we go, may the blessing, the peace, and the joy of the Holy One,
who is in the midst of us
be among us and in our hearts this day and always. Amen.
—based on the words of Henri-Frédéric Amiel (1821-1881)