I’ve always been fascinated by the image of ten virgins in the dead of night, each nursing a solitary flame. They are waiting, as women tend to do, for a bridegroom to appear. When he does, he’s just as mysterious as they, welcoming the first five women into the feast, but turning a cold shoulder to the last five who arrived late because the oil for their lamps had run out.
The seemingly insignificant detail of the oil in the women’s lamps makes all the difference in this Gospel reading. What is this oil, and how does it affect us? How do we “buy” enough of it before the night overtakes us and time runs out?
Like every good parable, this story’s treasures are hidden in its use of symbolism. The primary symbol here is the lamp which holds oil that fuels a flame. In Scripture, there is something, or rather someone, who is constantly symbolized as both oil and flame: The Holy Spirit.
I think it’s interesting how the Catholic Church has come to understand from scripture that the Holy Spirit isn’t just Person #3 in the Trinity; he is actually the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Therefore, those who possess the Holy Spirit have an intimate knowledge of Jesus and the Father. Jesus would not be able to say to them, as the bridegroom said to the foolish virgins, “I do not know you.”
The main function of the oil is to establish a connection between the women and the bridegroom. According to the Old Testament, the Messiah promised by the prophets had divine characteristics and would “marry” the nations just as God had “married” Israel when he renewed his covenant with them (Ex: 19-24). In Matthew 9:15, Jesus actually referred to himself as “the bridegroom.” The heavenly communion of Christ with the Church at the end of time represents the ultimate fulfillment of these prophesies.
So, if Jesus is the bridegroom and the Holy Spirit is the oil/flame, it would seem that the women represent the people (us) who are destined to live in covenant with Christ in the eternal, heavenly wedding banquet.
The next piece to the puzzle is this notion of “buying oil.” Even though the grace of salvation is a free gift, scripture repeatedly speaks of Jesus “paying the price” for that gift. According to 1 Peter 2:21, we are called to “follow in [Christ’s] steps” and to offer our own sufferings in union with his perfect sacrifice. As St. Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24).
The Catechism explains: “The cross is the unique sacrifice of Christ, the ‘one mediator between God and men.’ But because in his incarnate divine person he has in some way united himself to every man,’ the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery’ is offered to all men” (CCC 618).
So, when we suffer in the darkness of this world, we are actually partnering with our heavenly bridegroom. We are preparing for our future with him by receiving “his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” not just once, but every time we choose to believe in Christ and to love as he loved. This is how we “buy oil” – this is how we light our lamps.
The last key detail is that after the women “slumbered and slept,” all of their subsequent efforts to buy oil were rejected. Jesus frequently used sleep as a metaphor for death. If he was doing the same here, it would mean that once we die, our efforts to “buy oil,” to receive the Holy Spirit by suffering in union with the Savior, no longer carry eternal weight. If we have extinguished the life of God in our hearts, it cannot be rekindled after death. That fits right in with current Church teaching.
This is sobering stuff, but I can see why Jesus told this story: Life isn’t always pretty and knowing how much our sufferings matter can help us get through the long night ahead.
Nikol M. Jones is in her final year at Franciscan University’s Master’s in Theology and Christian Ministry program where it has been her joy to learn how to integrate the tools of modern biblical scholarship with the principles of biblical interpretation set forth by the Catholic Church in the service of the Word of God. She also has a passion for creating artwork and children’s books that honor the life and teachings of Christ. When she’s not studying or painting, she utilizes her writing and organizational skills as an administrative assistant. You can connect with her on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/nikol-m-jones-4b9893140/.