I have told this story to Church members here at Holy Name before but I think it is worth repeating. It concerns a little girl whose family lived near a beach. She had a grandfather whom she loved very much and she always looked forward to visiting him. Her grandfather had a collection of hourglasses and she always had great fun turning them upside down and watching the sand sift through them.
One day she asked her grandfather why he had so many of these hourglasses. Because, he explained, they reminded him that time was the most precious thing in the world and he had the make the best possible use of it.
It was close to Christmas one year and the little girl realised she had not seen her grandfather for several weeks. Eventually, her mother explained to her that grandpa was in the hospital because he was very sick and he might die. The little girl wasn’t sure what death was so her mother explained that life was like one of her grandfather’s hourglasses and that now he had very little time left.
A few days later her mother told the little girl that they would be going to visit grandpa in hospital that afternoon and asked her to make some kind of special Christmas present for him. The girl excitedly went to work on her gift. When they got to the hospital, she gave her grandfather a beautifully wrapped Christmas box. He slowly unwrapped his present, looked inside and smiled. He understood immediately what she had given: his granddaughter had filled the box with sand.
If only it was that easy to be able to extend our days on earth by adding more sand to our hourglasses, or, like the bridesmaids in the Gospel, more oil to our lamps, or more pages to our calendars and diaries. But, alas, the amount of time we are given by God is fixed – there’s a set number of grains of sand, a set number of calendar squares, a set number of turns of the hands of the clock, and a set amount of oil in our lamps.
How easy it is to go on living in the belief that we will always have time “later” to accomplish all we want to do. We work hard in life, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, foolishly thinking that someday we will have “enough” and then be able to relax and enjoy ourselves. However, one day we realise that the sand in the hourglass seems to be flowing faster than ever and that the oil in our lamps in running low.
On this Remembrance Sunday we are honouring countless men and women whose time on earth was drastically cut short and taken away in horrific circumstances. What would they have given to have the time we have had in life, including the luxury of being able to waste time as many of us may do so often?
How we should spend our time is addressed by Jesus in today’s Gospel. To understand his point we need to be familiar with the marriage customs of his culture. Since the wedding banquet or party would take place at the groom’s house, or at his father’s, the young women, described here as ‘virgins, would be part of the welcoming party for when the groom brought his bride home. The delay in his arrival would probably be due to discussing with his father-in-law the price he was willing to pay him for his daughter’s hand. If there was a long delay in starting the party it would be because the bride’s father was holding out for a better price.
Because of the long delay in this case, Jesus speaks about the grooms assistants settling down to wait, getting sleepy and nodding off. When they are alerted to the groom and bride approaching, five (called “foolish”) discover they are low on oil for their lanterns and they rush off to get some more. By the time they return, the wedding party has begun for the groom and bride, now accompanied by the five wise women who had sufficient oil. The foolish women now find themselves locked out and when they appeal to be allowed in the host gives the chilling response, “I do not know you.”
Jesus tells the story for us not to be caught out like those attendants. There may be a delay in his return but he asks us to ‘stay awake’ i.e. be more aware of how our lives are short and fragile and live accordingly; that we need to do now – not ‘later’ – things that need to be settled before the ‘hour’ of death comes; and in our shortening lives to be people of compassion, offering help wherever we encounter need, and being merciful with each other as we hope God is with us.
So we might ask ourselves: who do I identify with most in the story – the wise and well-prepared maids or the sleepy ones?
Holy Name Jesmond
12 November 2020