The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is perfect fodder for literary criticism; it’s the stuff of Joyce and Eliot and O’Neill. Here we have an allegory that makes us dance between the story and the deeper meaning. Are the ten bridesmaids married to one bridegroom? Where is the bride? What’s with the oil, and why did each bridesmaid need a lamp—couldn’t they share the light enough to interact with the bridegroom? Why would the bridegroom say he didn’t recognize five of the ten bridesmaids?

As my head reels, I can hear St. Ignatius saying, “Don’t be so literal! Use your imagination and engage your heart!”

Okay, now I see a little better . . . Like marriage, the relationship between God and his people is deeply intimate. Like the bridesmaids, the disciples and all people of faith wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ (the bridegroom). And like the wise bridesmaids, we need to have enough “oil” so we can see Christ present in the world.

Ignatius calls us to linger when we’ve struck gold, or in this case, oil. As we wait in joyful hope, what lights our lamps is the oil of open hearts, love of the “other,” and works of mercy. In our Catholic tradition, oil doesn’t just light our lamps, it is used to anoint the newly baptized, catechumens, newly ordained priests, and the sick. Oil is loaded with ancient symbolism and meaning.

Today, let’s reflect on how we can stay awake and see Christ at work in the world. Let’s light our lamps with the oil of love and keep them burning through a spirit of generosity. 

—Jeremy Langford is the director of communications for the Chicago-Detroit Province Jesuits and author of Seeds of Faith: Practices to Grow a Healthy Spiritual Life ©2007 Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA.