The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids (or Wise and Foolish Virgins), Matthew 25.1–13, is a linchpin text in a crucial symbolic narrative describing the final coming of Christ, which we celebrate from All Saints’ Day through the first Sunday of Advent (and indeed all the way to Candlemas). In the traditional Western liturgy two of the chants at Matins (a nighttime service of readings) for All Saints’ Day are taken from it, while in our Eucharistic lectionary the passage is the Gospel for this Sunday. Christ is cast as the royal Bridegroom; we are the bridesmaids expecting his arrival; the Kingdom of Heaven is fulfilled in the marriage of Christ and the Church.* Many hymns and other liturgical texts draw upon this wedding imagery; in particular, this parable has inspired two fine hymns of German origin in the Hymnal 1982, both of which will be part of this Sunday’s service.
‘Rejoice! rejoice, believers’ (Ermuntert euch, ihr Frommen ), dating from 1700, is the work of Laurentius Laurenti, a leading hymnist of the Pietist movement; the English translation was made by Sarah Borthwick Findlater and published in Edinburgh in 1853. The hymn specifically connects the parable to the present singing congregation, calling upon us to rejoice, to have our lamps lit and fuelled, to look for, and rise up at, the arrival of the Bridegroom. We then reply with a plea for the coming of Christ, for ‘the day of earth’s redemption’, to ‘ever be with thee’.
The other hymn in question is one of the finest ever written: ‘“Sleepers, wake!” A voice astounds us’ (‘Wachet auf!’ ruft uns die Stimme [61, in Bach’s arrangement from his cantata upon this hymn; 62, in its original melodic form]). Both text and tune were written by Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran pastor, during a plague in 1597–98: fitting, then, that we sing it in somewhat similar circumstances just over 500 years later. The hymn draws upon not only the parable, but also, even more explicitly than Hymn 68, upon verses from Revelation 19 (the marriage of the Lamb) and 21 (the gates of pearl) as well as Ezekiel 3 and Isaiah 52 (the ‘watchmen’ / ‘rampart guards’), and I Cor. 2 (what no eye has seen, nor ear heard…’). The text – successfully so, too, in the translation by Episcopal priest-poet Carl Daw, and aided by its melody beginning with two rising figures like a trumpet call – vividly portrays a city abuzz with excitement at the coming of the King and Bridegroom: ‘her heart with joyful hope is springing’. At midnight the watchmen on the city walls spy the royal entourage, and call out: Awake! Arise! Bring light! And not just the bridesmaids, but the whole city, ‘wakes and hurries through the night’, going out to meet the King. In the end their (our) lamps are not even needed (good news, perhaps, for the foolish bridesmaids!), for ‘her star is risen, her light grows bright’. Who, then, could resist the ‘call / to come into the banquet hall’? Who could fail to ‘sing / to greet our King’?
Bach’s cantata is a justly famous setting of and commentary on this great hymn; this week we hear a much more modestly proportioned, but no less infectiously joyful, solo motet setting by Franz Tunder, who preceded Dieterich Buxtehude at St Mary’s Church in Lübeck in the mid-17th century and established some of the first free, public concerts known anywhere. Tunder certainly hears the opening motif as a trumpet call, and repeats and elaborates it in an extended section in triple meter: over and over we hear ‘Rise up! rise up!’ (‘Steht auf! Steht auf!’), and the praise-song of the faithful: Alleluia!
There is a natural progression from the celebration of the saints in glory (All Saints’ Day), to prayer (on All Souls’ Day) for those who may yet be ‘increasing in knowledge and love of [God],… go[ing] from strength to strength in the life of perfect service in [God’s] heavenly kingdom’ (Prayers of the People, Burial of the Dead), to examination of our own mortality and preparedness to meet our Maker (several of the Additional Prayers at the Burial of the Dead), to meditation upon the Last Things. Indeed, some of the traditional texts of the Mass for the Dead, such as the famous ‘Dies irae’, were originally Advent texts. Connections are found, too, in some of the Scriptures appointed this time of year, such as this Sunday’s Epistle (the Lord will descend with the sound of a trumpet, and the dead will be raised and all taken up into heaven [I Thess. 4]) and the Gospel for this Sunday in Year C (God is God not of the dead, but of the living; the dead are children of the resurrection [Luke 20]). And to help us prepare for all this – for the Son of God to ‘destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life’ – we pray in the very fine Collect for divine aid to ‘purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power… we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom’.
*The bridegroom imagery is first found in the Hebrew Bible: In Jeremiah and above all in Hosea (whose whole life was an enacted parable or act of prophecy upon the subject) God is seen as the faithful husband of the unfaithful Israel. More hopefully, the Lord is cast as the Bridegroom to the renewed and restored Jerusalem in Isaiah 61–62. The image is picked up by Jesus in answer to the question about fasting (Matt. 9; Mark 2; Luke 5), and elaborated most of all in the present parable and in the Revelation. St Paul is the father of the Bride (II Cor. 11.2); St John the Baptist is the best man (John 3.29; Hymn 143).
Continuing the arc of the narrative through the season, the Epiphany is seen as the marriage, with the Magi as wedding guests bearing gifts, and the Wedding at Cana, also traditionally associated with the Epiphany, as the wedding-feast. Candlemas (the Presentation of Our Lord and Purification of Our Lady) then becomes the occasion of the consummation of the marriage, when there is a procession welcoming Christ and the Bride adorns her bridal chamber – the chuppah of Psalm 19.5, where we also find a heavenly Bridegroom, and also the baldachin or ciborium over a traditional Christian altar, which is exactly like it, as seen in every icon for the feast – and ‘the Lord suddenly comes to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1).