This week’s lectionary blog explores the Sunday reading from the Gospel of Matthew 25.1-13.
Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, email@example.com
One Christmas, it must have been about 30 years ago, when I was visiting my parents in Dorset, I went to a pre-Christmas service in the local village church.
The organist had chosen to play the Nicolai/Bach organ chorale, ‘Wachet Auf’ (BWV 645). That is a piece of music that I have long loved. I appreciate the way that the music begins with Bach’s accompaniment, then Nicolai’s chorale enters the frame, while Bach continues to weave his threads around the melody, and they both end together in a resonant conclusion. (Listen, for example, to the work played on an organ at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cas1jTPU7Cw)
However, on that particular occasion, though we had the accompaniment – all of it, from beginning to end – Nicolai’s chorale melody never made an appearance. I sat there in anticipation, but it never appeared and eventually I realised that it wasn’t going to. I suspect that coordinating the two was beyond the capabilities of the organist, valiant though he was, and so he had decided in advance to omit the chorale. Ever since I have thought of the experience as being ‘Wachet Auf’ without the ‘Auf’.
When the melody of ‘Wachet Auf’ is vocalised, the words are drawn from the parable in Matthew 25.1-13, that is the Gospel for this Sunday. It tells the story of the ten virgins (updated, slightly questionably I feel, by modern biblical translations to ‘bridesmaids’) who are waiting for a delayed bridegroom to appear. One of the fascinating – and mysterious – aspects of the tale is that the bride herself is never actually mentioned, which incidentally is also the case for another Gospel story about a wedding – John’s account of the wedding at Cana in Galilee (John 2.1-12).
The original German text of ‘Wachet Auf’ composed by Phillip Nicolai has been widely translated into English. Perhaps the best known version is by F.C. Burkitt. The chorale text does identify a bride, who is Jerusalem or Zion personified:
Wake, O wake! With tidings thrilling
the watchmen all the air are filling,
arise, Jerusalem, arise!
Midnight strikes! No more delaying,
‘The hour has come!’ we hear them saying,
‘where are ye all, ye virgins wise?
The Bridegroom comes in sight,
raise high your torches bright!’
The wedding song swells loud and strong:
Go forth and join the festal throng.
Zion hears the watchmen shouting,
her heart leaps up with joy undoubting,
she stands and waits with eager eyes;
see her Friend from heaven descending,
adorned with truth and grace unending!
Her light burns clear, her star doth rise.
Now come, thou precious Crown,
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son!
Let us prepare to follow there,
where in thy supper we may share.
It is interesting that this parable from Matthew 25.1-13 should be chosen as the Gospel reading for 8 November, still in the first half of the month. In earlier centuries it tended to be held over either till the beginning of Advent, or (in the Lutheran tradition) used on the Last Sunday before Advent (Bach’s Wachet Auf was originally composed with that Sunday in mind). The parable does clearly have an ‘Advent’ flavour – quite literally as it is a story about waiting for the ‘coming’ of the bridegroom. Indeed there is a wonderful poem by Christina Rossetti which takes this Gospel reading as its focus which is actually called ‘Advent Sunday’. Since Rossetti’s poem is not particularly well known (and also it is out of copyright) I include the full text here:
BEHOLD, the Bridegroom cometh: go ye out
With lighted lamps and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout.
It may be at the midnight, black as pitch,
Earth shall cast up her poor, cast up her rich.
It may be at the crowing of the cock
Earth shall upheave her depth, uproot her rock.
For lo, the Bridegroom fetcheth home the Bride:
His Hands are Hands she knows, she knows His Side.
Like pure Rebekah at the appointed place,
Veiled, she unveils her face to meet His Face.
Like great Queen Esther in her triumphing,
She triumphs in the Presence of her King.
His Eyes are as a Dove’s, and she’s Dove-eyed;
He knows His lovely mirror, sister, Bride.
He speaks with Dove-voice of exceeding love,
And she with love-voice of an answering Dove.
Behold, the Bridegroom cometh: go we out
With lamps ablaze and garlands round about
To meet Him in a rapture with a shout. (Christina Rossetti)
I am not quite sure whether the ‘bride’ in this poem is intended to be the Church, or humanity as a whole? Perhaps in fact it veers, not inappropriately, between the two?
But it is interesting to reflect on this parable in the context in which we now use it. What does it mean to read it in this month that we might call ‘the Advent of Advent’? What does it mean also to read it on what is widely kept as Remembrance Sunday? And in a week in which the ambiguity of the US electoral process is clearly dominating the news headlines (I write this on the morning of Wednesday 4 November – and whatever the ultimate outcome ‘ambiguity’ will be an accurate word to use!) During COVID times? And in the days following some brutal examples of religiously motivated violence occurring in major cities of Europe?
The poet Malcolm Guite has written thoughtfully about the meaning of Advent. Malcolm notes:
‘Advent is a season for stillness, for quiet, for discernment. It is a season of active waiting, straining forward, listening, attentive and finely tuned.’ Elsewhere he suggests that Advent is ‘a season of waiting and anticipation in which the waiting itself is strangely rich and fulfilling.’
I think that Malcolm’s remarks about ‘active waiting, straining forward’… are important for us at the present time. Somehow (and I don’t think I speak only for myself) the challenge that many of us are undergoing in different parts of Europe to live with and through the ‘second wave’ of the COVID virus feels even more difficult than the first. Perhaps it is partly because we are now moving into winter, rather than as previously, into spring? Perhaps because it somehow feels just a little bit harder to see an end to it all in view than it did the first time round? I think that this year we are going to be living in and through Advent more profoundly than we have often been able to in the past, and indeed the current social realities will also mean, I suspect, that it won’t be so easy for Christmas to trespass back into Advent in the way that it so often does. So this year offers us the opportunity to explore Advent more deeply… and perhaps this week’s parable encourages us to think in advance about what this might mean.
The Roman Catholic nun Maria Boulding’s classic book, The Coming of God is one I myself have turned to again and again over the years to explore the meaning of Advent. Its opening lines may initially appear bleak, but they are worth pausing on and inwardly digesting, ‘If you want God, and long for union with him, yet sometimes wonder what that means or whether it can mean anything at all, you are already walking with the God who comes.’ It is a good thought to bear in mind in our Diocese whose motto is ‘Walking Together in Faith’. I will save Boulding’s delicious conclusion to the book to quote as my final words this week.
To return to my experience of Wachet Auf without the ‘Auf’, with which I began, the essential problem was I guess that without the chorale melody there was no sense of ‘straining forward’ nor did the waiting feel really ‘rich and fulfilling’! That sense of looking forward with joy and anticipation which is so much a part of Phillip Nicolai’s text and melody was completely lost.
Of course there are ambiguities in the biblical parable, and in the writings like Nicolai and Rossetti which draw upon it. That missing bride, and that particular naming of female virginity, which so reflect Middle Eastern culture even these days, do make me uneasy. So I cherish the song written by Kathy Galloway, deliberately set to the melody ‘Wachet Auf’, which explores the meeting between Love and human beings but ‘inverting’ the metaphor of gender as it had been employed in earlier days. I quote the whole song:
Seas roll back, and mountains tremble
and rain will dance upon the desert
the rose will grow in splendour bright.
Dawn is born of darkness’ labour
and shadowed sorrow long in waiting
no more may fear the tender night.
For Love has left her throne
and comes to claim her own
All living things in joy embrace
to see the glory of her face.
Every hate and every hunger
will flee before her holy anger
and healing every hurt will find.
Every wrong with justice mending
she walks abroad in pity tending
the aching heart of humankind.
For love has come to earth
inviting us to birth
Both men and women, flesh and flower
are split with her emerging power.
Come and dance, come shout with gladness
Come leave your shame, shake off your sadness
And make your peace with all that’s past.
We may rightly know each other
And rightly live as sister, brother,
In freedom reaching out at last.
For Love is moving through,
Her spirit draws us to
To shake and shatter every bond
And find our holy common ground.
(Words, copyright Kathy Galloway, melody ‘Wachet Auf’, reproduced with permission)
They are perhaps good words to quote in the days before the long awaited Church of England report ‘Living in Love and Faith’ is due to appear (9 November). (I genuinely have absolutely NO idea what that report is going to say.)
The final chapter of Maria Boulding’s book is called ‘the Sacrament of Advent’. An interesting thought for these days in which many are forced to live with the lack of sacramental worship. In this context how can we make the waiting ‘rich and fulfilling’? Perhaps by listening both with physical, and spiritual, ears to the interweaving of melody and accompaniment in Wachet Auf, and looking forward to its final resolution: ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting. Before the final wedding of God with humanity the lovers meet many times… the ‘Come’ theme from whichever end we view it is about the advance of lovers…The gift is certain, because God is already pledged, already in our world, already Emmanuel. We are irrevocably, unconditionally, loved.’ (Maria Boulding, The Coming of God).