Used with permission —Tomie dePaola/Simon and Schuster
Tomie dePaola’s depiction of the wise and foolish virgins.
 Used with permission —Tomie dePaola/Simon and Schuster
Tomie dePaola’s depiction of the wise and foolish virgins.
As a child I was fascinated with the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25) in Tomie dePaola’s picture Bible. This probably had little to do with the actual text and more to do with the fact that there were girls in the story, and the pictures were pretty. But the story intrigued me for years, though I understood none of it.

Why, I wondered, were there 20 virgins standing around in the middle of the night waiting for the bridegroom? Why did they need lamps, and why did they not know when he was coming? And where was the bride? This sounds like someone’s horrible planning blunder. Having been a bridesmaid in seven weddings in the last year, I can tell you this would not fly in modern America.

But in ancient Israel, a marriage was far more than just a wedding. It was an intricately constructed series of events over a span of time.

The first step toward the marriage took place when the groom made his request known to his intended bride’s father, then offered her a cup of wine over which a betrothal benediction has been said. This was the cup of the covenant, offered during a meal. The bride’s partaking in the cup was her acceptance, and from this point the bride and groom entered  a yearlong engagement.

During the year the father of the groom would build an extension onto his house. It was also his decision when the marriage would take place. When he announced the time, the bridegroom and his groomsmen would set out by night to bring home his bride, lighting torches and carrying out a candlelight procession to her house, shouting and blowing a ram’s horn, and probably having a great time being obnoxious in the middle of the night. It was all meant to alert the bride to make ready.

But she’d better already be prepared, because we all know how long these things take. Having only the year-marker and the sight of the house as an estimate, the women may in fact have been waiting for days or several weeks for the groom to arrive. Their readiness at all times was a requirement. (And I thought it was a tough requirement when we bridesmaids had to wear stiletto heels on the stone floor of a mission church for a wedding).

It suddenly becomes clear why lamps with extra oil were necessary.

And the foolish virgins? They weren’t just forgetful or flighty – they were unfaithful and unworthy of the bride and groom. They failed in their duty. The Greek word used in the Gospel, moros, actually indicates ‘irreverent’ or ‘godless.’

From this parable, I glean the following:

• First, that the year of engagement is a time of purity and preparation: bride and groom wait in joyful expectation. They wait in purity. They wait with the knowledge that their hope will be fulfilled.

• Second, that their marriage is a sacred contract, binding them to one another and to God. This is a clear understanding of marriage as a vocation – not as an end itself, but as a means to heaven. Note also that it is the father who builds the house – the father who does the work. So in our vocations, we must let the Father work in us.

And why marriage? Because marriage images the love of the Trinity in us. Marriage binds in love; it pro-creates; it sacrifices; it sanctifies. Christ himself is the Bridegroom of the Church, his Bride, made so also through a covenant. We, the Church, are then called to wait in expectation and to be ready, lest we be found foolish in our quest.

The writer, a Portlander, holds a degree in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is currently completing a Master's in Biblical Theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University.