'The Kingdom of heaven will be like this: Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom'
The kingdom of heaven will be like 10 virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise."
We all know this story: five foolish maidens, who fail to bring extra oil for their festive lamps end up in darkness, locked out from the wedding feast, while the other five maidens, who were wise, refused to share their extra supplies of oil out of concern that the bridegroom would be refused entry to the wedding hall.
In the 12th century, the facade of one of the loveliest churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere, was decorated with a huge mosaic showing the maidens holding big, round lamps - some have them lit, others, sadly, extinguished.
Holy Mother, peacefully breastfeeding Baby Jesus is standing in the middle, among them. Five maidens with flaming lamps stand on her right, the other five on the left.
Bright red lights of the lamps of those on Mary's right are visible even from the distance, as are the crowns and halos on the heads of these wise maidens. The situation on Mary's left is less clear. Two maidens, those closest to her definitely hold empty lamps. No light here.
It is obvious that they ran out of oil and regret it. They are shown with heads sadly bowed and they bear no crowns. It is difficult to see if those standing behind them have their lamps lit - if so, it is a rather miserable, tiny flame.
What always puzzled me in this mosaic is that the foolish maidens, with no exception, still have halos around their heads. In the iconography of that time a halo-surrounded head is a sure sign that its owner is in heaven, a saint.
How did the foolish maidens end up in the place of eternal joy? The parable ends on a stern note:
"Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, 'Lord, Lord, open the door for us!' But he said in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.'"
Has the artist made a mistake? Not in the 12th century, when faith ran strong and understanding of Jesus' words was deeper than ours.
In my uneducated opinion it is the presence of Mary that made all the difference. She is half-turned, not towards the wise maidens, these are already triumphant and saved.
Her total attention seems to be focused on those maidens who stand helplessly, holding their useless lamps. The two sad maidens, those with heads bowed, stand closest to her and turn towards her in an obvious gesture of supplication, extending the empty lamps toward her and Child Jesus on her knees.
You can almost hear "Mother of Jesus, Jesus the Child-God, we ran out of oil, help us. Please do not leave us in the darkness."
With Mary pleading for them, these foolish maidens still have hope of salvation and the artist has expressed this hope by surrounding the heads of the maidens with halos.
It is obvious that their degree of holiness is less than perfect, so no crowns or wreaths have been added – but that daring, childlike hope of eventual salvation shines strongly.
The longer I live, the less I am tempted to count myself among the wise maidens. My lamp is always at its lowest, if not outright empty. The light of my faith, save for the blessed hour of the Sunday Mass (and even then, not always) flickers precariously.
Those shreds of prayer I send to heaven are simply pitiful. Like many of us, I constantly waste God's graces and keep running after transient things of this life. Yes, I am a foolish "maiden." That is why I need Mary, my mother, by my side.