By Christian Bergmann
Traditionally, beside every tabernacle is a small red light. This light, though small, communicates something of immense significance: the presence of the Lord dwells there – we should approach with reverence. Catholicism did not create this tradition from out of nowhere. As with a lot of things, the roots of Catholic practice and theology go deep into Jewish antiquity. In the latter half of the Book of Exodus, and Leviticus, we see a command to have an olive lamp continually burning before the presence of the Lord (Exodus 27:20-21; Leviticus 24:1-4). Tending these lamps was to be one of the primary duties of the Levitical priesthood.
Later in Jewish history, however, something strange happens. The idolatry of the Jewish people at one point becomes so bad that God said to the prophet Ezekiel: “Is it such a trivial matter for the house of Judah to do the abominable things they have done . . .?” (8:17). This is a devastating critique: what was abominable in the sight of the Lord had become simply trivial to his people. Their sins, God said, were “great beyond measure; the land is filled with bloodshed, the city with lawlessness” (9:9). The punishment for their idolatry is probably one of the most significant and dramatic scenes in all the Old Testament: the “glory of the Lord” (that is, his presence), leaves the temple and Jerusalem forever.
From then on, the Jewish people awaited the return of the Lord’s presence.
The early Church Father Methodius brings our attention to this history in relation to Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). Methodius highlights especially the fact that the priests of the Old Testament were commanded to tend the lamp through the night and “until the morning” (Leviticus 24:3). This “morning”, Methodius says, is the coming of Christ, after which there will be no need for any other light. This is reminiscent of the Book of Revelation, which tells us that at the end of all things, when God comes to restore all creation in him, the only light needed will be that which comes from “the glory of the Lord” (Revelation 21:23). This glory of the Lord, his presence, is something that the New Testament depicts as returning in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
When the baby Jesus is brought before Simeon in the Gospel of Luke, Simeon describes Jesus as “glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32).
The hope of the people of Israel – and our hope as Christians – is for the presence of God to dwell amongst us in a renewed and transfigured creation. We believe that it is Jesus who accomplishes this, since he is the presence and glory of God.
The significance of the small red light by the tabernacle takes on a whole new shape with this history in mind: this presence, this glory, has begun to dwell amongst us in the humblest form of the Eucharist. And this union of God’s presence with humanity is often referred to in nuptial terms. It is described as a wedding feast. So, in the Parable of the Ten Virgins, Jesus evokes this by centring the drama of the parable around the coming of the bridegroom.
With this Eucharistic understanding in mind, we can read the parable with Saint Augustine: the virgins stand for the Church, and the light of the lamps stand for the light of love. The Eucharist is a foretaste of God’s kingdom, of the wedding feast of the Lamb – we are still waiting on Jesus’ return to fulfil everything he began in his life, death and resurrection. The question for Augustine, though, is whether we will, like the foolish virgins, let our love grow cold in the meantime. Or, like the wise virgins, if we will keep our love burning strong.