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In Jesus’ conception, there is one virgin being prepared. In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared. In the manner of armchair lectionary critics, I might have placed the parable in Advent. But there are only four spots to fill, so second-guessing is easy. Regardless, it has a primary place in my own Advent season this year.
Having been introduced to Malcolm Guite by a colleague, I find myself captivated by his sonnets. This year I am reading his Waiting on the Word, his selection and exposition of poems for Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany. Today’s reading (December 3), is John Donne’s “Annunciation.” The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, but even my own slow reading of the piece yields precious insight. The incarnation is mystery enough to behold for a lifetime, if only by pondering the last line:
Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.
In this year’s Advent, my imagination juxtaposes the annunciation with the parable of the ten virgins. I have always understood the oil in their lamps to be a symbol of preparation for the Day of the Lord. Be faithful. Be alert. Move on to another parable.
But what is involved in preparation? The lamps must be refilled. The wise ones brought
oil with them, but they only had enough for themselves. The foolish ones had to find another source elsewhere. They missed out on the advent of the bridegroom, because they did not have enough oil.
Oil in the Scriptures is both a staple and a sign of God’s provision and blessing. It is used for healing, for lamps, for anointing, and refreshment. Where there is oil there is life and goodness.
I am in a season of life that is not unlike Advent, so the mood of Advent itself feels especially intense this year. For some months I have sensed a preparation for something that is to come. God’s Spirit seems to be painting provocative designs on the walls of my imagination. My prayers are often wordless yet profound. I feel a great potential stirring. A parable about oil lamps being refilled resonates. Poems and images of Mary bearing a secret touch a deep cord.
The Messianic secret is one of the mysteries of the gospels, yet it rings true for me right now. There is the oil of life, and also the image of the seed, which in Mary is the beginning of God’s “new thing.” (Isa 43.19) The small seed of God’s inbreaking needs time in the darkness, time to germinate. It must take in the nutrients required. There is no need to hurry; indeed, pushing it to yield its fruit too soon will spoil it.
We bear a secret, disciples of Jesus Christ. We share Mary’s role as Theotokos, God-bearer. The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe. As such, it is not only secreted (hidden) within us, it is also secreted (generated or released) from us in myriad ways. The “immensity” of God is borne into the world in the tiniest of ways, by a thought or a glance, a soft touch, a word fitly spoken.
And so one more secret bearer is imagined. Mary poured oil on Jesus’ head (Jn 12.3) at a dinner given in his honor. Judas objected to the extravagance. He could not see that her gesture came from a deep place, where love had been pulsing and expanding until it had to find expression.
At Christmas time—at any time—when God’s love is made manifest, may we be ready, filled with the oil of God’s life, so that the flame may be lit and we may see it.