Prepare Your Lamps!: Holy Tuesday and the Parable of the Ten Virgins

Let us truly love the Bridegroom, O brethren,
and prepare our oil lamps to receive Him.

-First Kathisma Hymn of Holy Tuesday Bridegroom Orthros
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
The services for Holy Tuesday begin with the Bridegroom Orthros celebrated in the evening on Holy Monday. The synaxarion reading for that service tells us that Holy Tuesday is dedicated to the Parable of the Ten Virgins that Christ told to his disciples. This parable gives us an image of what the experience of Christ's second coming will be like.
Although the service of the Bridegroom Orthros on Holy Monday evening sets this parable up as the major theme for the the day, it is not introduced into the Gospels readings until the Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy celebrated on Holy Tuesday morning.
At any other time of the year, the liturgical day begins with the Vespers service celebrated in the evening. In these cases, the Vespers service will match the theme of the feast being celebrated the next day. If this logic applied during Holy Week, then we would expect the Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy celebrated 'by anticipation' on Monday morning to be the first service of Holy Tuesday. But that service matches thematically with the commemoration of the fig tree on Holy Monday. Similarly, we would expect the Vesperal Presanctified Liturgy celebrated 'by anticipation' on Holy Tuesday morning to be the first service of Holy Wednesday. Instead, that service matches the theme of Holy Tuesday. We can see, then, that the normal liturgical logic we are used to during the rest of the year does not apply during Holy Week.
The Gospel reading for the Presanctified Liturgy of Holy Tuesday (Matthew 24:36-51; 25:1-46; 26:1-2) begins with Christ telling his disciples that no-one knows when it is that he will return to earth at his second coming:
"Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming."
Jesus then tells the disciples three parables to illustrate the kind of watchfulness that he is calling us to. First, he tells the parable of the servant who behaves wickedly in his master's absence, only to be surprised by the master's return "on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know."
Second, he tells the parable of the ten virgins who are called out to meet the bridegroom at his arrival. Five of them have saved oil for the their lamps and are able to enter the bridal feast, while the other five did not save oil for their lamps and are not able to enter the bridal feast.
The hymnology for this service mourns the fact that, often in our lives, we behave more like the foolish virgins who were not ready for the bridegroom's arrival rather than the wise virgins who were prepared:
"I have been sleepy with idleness of soul, and therefore, O Bridegroom Christ, my lamp is not burning with virtue. I have been like those foolish maidens, roving about when it was time for work. O Master, I pray You do not close Your compassionate heart on me; but shake off this gloomy sleep from me, and raise me up, and bring me together with the wise virgins into Your bridal chamber, where the pure sound is of those who are feasting and unceasingly shouting, 'Glory to You, O Lord.'"

The idea of remaining vigilant and watchful over our soul while awaiting Christ's return is a major part of Orthodox Christian spirituality. For many of the Church Fathers, watchfulness (nipsis) is a crucial precondition for prayer.
St. Hesychios the Priest

St. Hesychios the Priest, a writer of unknown date who lived at St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai, has the following to say about watchfulness:

"Attentiveness is the heart’s stillness, unbroken by any thought. In this stillness the heart breathes and invokes, endlessly and without ceasing, only Jesus Christ who is the Son of God and Himself God. It confesses Him who alone has power to forgive our sins, and with His aid it courageously faces its enemies. Through this invocation enfolded continually in Christ, who secretly divines all hearts, the soul does everything it can to keep its sweetness and its inner struggle hidden from men, so that the devil, coming upon it surreptitiously, does not lead it into evil and destroy its precious work."

Watchfulness, then, is a kind of alertness of the soul that pays careful attention to whatever it is experiencing. Through this careful attention to our internal life, we learn how to recognize what sorts of things help us in our spiritual life and what sorts of things harm us. If I pay attention, for example, to the spiritual harm that conversations with particular co-workers cause for me, then I know to avoid those conversations. In that way, watchfulness over our interior life causes us to never be taken by surprise by an unknown temptation.

The hymnology for the Bridegroom Orthros services speaks of our watchfulness for the Bridegroom's return as a kind of wakefulness: "Be not overcome with sleep, so that you not be handed over to death and shut out of the kingdom. But rouse yourself, crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy are you O God.'" This hymn is speaking of spiritual wakefulness, of our need to make sure that we have not 'fallen asleep' in our spiritual lives. We are called to keep and wakeful and sober vigil over our soul, and not to 'drift off' so that we are unaware of our spiritual condition.

In some cases, remaining awake spiritually requires us to also remain awake physically. Often we experience sleepiness when it is time to pray; we use tiredness to excuse ourselves from prayer. Spiritual watchfulness, in these cases, requires us also to remain physically awake at least long enough to pray. To help with this, some monks will use a device called a tempeloxylo to stay awake during prayer.

Tempeloxylo, 'the wood of the lazy'

This device, whose name means 'the wood of the lazy,' forces the body to stay in an upright position rather than slumping over as sleepiness overtakes us. Although using a device like this may seem extreme to most of us (and most monks do not need them), the lesson that we can take away from them is that we have no excuse not to engage our spiritual life through prayer.

The 'oil' that the five foolish virgins lack is only obtained through charity. Fr. Lev Gillet comments on this parable:

"The lamp which is needed in order to go out and meet the Bridegroom cannot be lighted unless it is filled with oil. Oil symbolises charity. Without the oil of charity, it is impossible to have that fire, that warmth, that light, which the Bridegroom requires of those whom he will acknowledge as his. Moreover, the oil of charity which alone makes the inner flame possible, is not something that can be 'borrowed' from others; it is something that can only be acquired strictly personally; it must be 'bought', that is, obtained through some costly effort."

Today's Orthros canon confirms that it is through giving to others that we purchase for ourselves the readiness that Christ will require of us:

"Let the oil of distributing alms
be abundant in the vessels of our souls,
so that we will not be purchasing
when it comes time for the rewards.
Then we can sing, 'Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord.'"

The third and final parable that Jesus tells to his disciples in this Gospel reading is the parable of the talents. In this parable, a master has given some of his money to his servants to watch over. To one of the servants, he gave five talents, to another three, and to the final servant he gave only one talent. When the master returned, the first two servants had doubled their master's investment. The final servant, on the other hand, had hidden his master's investment and done nothing with it.

This parable continues the message of the first two. We do not know when our master is returning. Therefore, it is crucial for each of us to make the most of the time and the resources that we have been given until our master's return. We are called to use this time and these resources not for our own gain, but for the benefit of those who are in need. Then, when our master returns, we will have something to offer him.

All of these parables are offered to us today as a wake-up call. The Bridegroom is coming! The master had returned! He is coming to us dressed in the bridal garment of his passion. We are being called to rouse ourselves from our slumber, to take up the task of watchfulness and readiness at least at this last moment as Christ makes his way to his Cross for our salvation. Let us respond to this call with faithfulness to our Lord who said, "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified."