Once upon a time there were ten virgins (yes, it was a long time ago). Five of them were wise and five were foolish. When they went to meet the bridegroom for the big wedding banquet, the wise virgins took flasks of oil to refill their lamps. The foolish did not. When the bridegroom was delayed the ten virgins fell asleep waiting. At midnight there came a shout that the bridegroom was on his way so they awoke in the dark and trimmed their lamps at which point the foolish asked the wise for some of their extra oil. The wise said no and sent them off to the Palestinian Southern States to get more. While they were gone, the bridegroom ar-rived and took the five wise virgins to the wedding banquet while the foolish ones missed out. And so it is with the coming of the Kingdom of God. Wake up and be ready or you will miss out.
This famous parable, another eschatological allegory, is appointed for one of the last Sundays in year A of the three year lectionary and this year falls on Sunday Nov. 12. Our music that morning will follow this theme using the great German hymn “Wachet Auf” (Sleepers Wake). Often called “the King of Chorales”, both words and hymntune were written by the German pastor Philipp Nicolai around 1597 in Unna, Westphalia using the parable of the wise and foolish virgins as its foundation. More than a hundred years later, the ever energetic J.S. Bach, who wrote sacred cantatas for every Sunday of the three year lectionary and then some, composed his cantata 140 for the 27th Sunday after the Trinity using the Wachet Auf Chorale as its theme. It is Bach’s harmonization of the tune that we will sing from our hymnal and the choir will sing a movement from the cantata at the Offertory. In a somewhat more indirect reference to this theme, the Handbell Choir will play during communion a piece based on Westminster Quarters which is the tune clocks play indicating it is time to Wachet Auf (Wake Up)!
It should also be noted that reading the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in church does not hap-pen very often. This parable is only in Matthew and only in year A of the lectionary which means it on-ly comes up every three years at best. Further, the 27th Sunday after the Trinity does not happen eve-ry year A, but only when Easter comes early enough to allow that many Sundays after Trinity Sunday which moves with Easter. It is believed that Bach performed his Wachet Auf Cantata only once, in part because of how rarely the appointed Sunday comes up. And yet, Bach composed what many musicians and scholars believe is one of his finest cantatas for this infrequent occasion. I like to think it is because this famously devout musician well understood the lesson of this special parable that is applicable to so many parts of our lives. From the Boy Scout motto to birth control to the coming of the Kingdom of God: always be prepared, for you never know when the time will come. Don’t be caught sleeping. Wachet Auf!