The angel visits Mary; one virgin is being prepared. In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared.
I am captivated by the sonnets of Malcolm Guite. He also masterfully crafts poetry anthologies, including his Advent/Christmas collection, Waiting on the Word, which includes John Donne’s “Annunciation.” The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, and 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.
My imagination juxtaposes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary 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.
But what is involved in preparation? The lamps must be refilled. The wise young women 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.
A journal entry from a couple Decembers ago reads: “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 gospel images of preparation and potential are helpful. Mary seems to be like the virgins who are prepared. 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 to the world. The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe. As such, it is not only se’creted (hidden) within us, it is also secret’ed (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.
My mind moves to the story of another Mary and her secrets. She 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.
The precious secret is revealed in the manger. But it also exists inside us, where the oil of God’s life fuels our love for Jesus Christ. Our love for him lights the way of hope, at Christmas time and always.