On Wise and Foolish Virgins

The Postulant wonders about the Gospel appointed for St Cecilia. Here’s the best and most complete answer I can give…


In the lectionaries of the Benedictine Revival, Matthew 25:1–13 was utilized for a general class of occasions: feasts of multiple virgins. By Ælfric’s time, there was a fairly well defined set of saints venerated in common by the Western Church. This sanctoral kalendar was born from attempts to standardize liturgical practice across the West—particularly by Charlemagne and the rulers after him—but does not represent in any way the establishment of a centralized control or process over who was named a saint and how it occurred. As a result, the addition of new saints to the kalendar was not an uncommon occurrence in an early medieval monastery.

As the new saints were added to the yearly round, they required liturgical texts so that they could be properly venerated. Thus a generic set of texts were appointed to cover a variety of saintly classifications: apostles, martyrs, confessors, bishops, abbots/abbesses, and virgins. These appeared in both singular and multiple configurations. Practically speaking, the multiple appeared most often in the case of groups of martyrs who were killed together. The various liturgical books had a set of the most necessary of these—though not necessarily standardized—referred to as the Commons of the Saints.[1] The Leofric Missal, for instance, contains commons for the vigil and feast of one apostle, a feast of multiple apostles, vigils of holy martyrs, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, vigils of holy confessors, a feast of one confessor, a feast of multiple confessors, a feast of virgins and martyrs, and a feast of several saints in common.[2] Paul the Deacon includes similar categories including materials for a vigil of one apostle, a feast of one apostle, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, a feast of multiple confessors, and a feast of multiple virgins. Ælfric, in turn, provides in the Catholic Homilies for a feast of one apostle, a feast of multiple apostles, a feast of one martyr, a feast of multiple martyrs, a feast of one confessor, a feast of multiple confessors, and a feast of multiple virgins.[3]

The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is appointed for a general kind of liturgical occasion, the common of multiple virgins, and also appears early at the feast of some virgin martyrs, most notably Agatha. The logic here is not too hard to trace—but is more interesting than it first appears. The obvious correlation is that the occasion celebrates virgins who, by virtue of their sanctity, have entered into the final consummation and stand now in the presence of God and the Lamb as intercessors on behalf of the faithful; the passage itself features multiple virgins who enter into the marriage banquet that is surely a symbol of eschatological rejoicing.

This interpretation is well attested in the liturgical variety of the church. Hesbert’s great collection of antiphons and responsaries from medieval Europe contains four antiphons[4] and twelve responsories[5] that use this passage. Most of them connect it explicitly to virgin saints. Sometimes exegetical decisions are already encoded into these texts. Responsary 7228 which circulated with two different verses, is a prime example:

You will not be among the foolish virgins, says the Lord, but you will be among the wise virgins; taking up the oil of gladness in their lamps, going out to meet him they will meet the Bridegroom with the palms of virginity.
(Verse 1a): But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the Bridegroom comes, go out to meet him.
(Verse 1b): But coming they will come with exultation, carrying their sheaves
Response: Going out to meet him they will meet the Bridegroom with the palms of virginity.[6]

The interpretation identifying the oil as “the oil of gladness” is interesting and has two complementary possible sources. The early medieval church read VgPs 44 narrating the marriage between Christ and women religious—“the oil of gladness” is mentioned in v. 8. The gloss may be a direct reference to the psalm. Alternatively, Augustine made the connection between the psalm and Matt 25 in De Div Quaest. 83.

Verse 1b represents another exegetical option. While Verse 1a uses a text from the Matthean parable, Verse 1b introduces a passage from the Psalms (VgPs 126:6). According to Augustine, the psalm refers to almsgiving; the sowing of the seed is the giving of alms, returning with sheaves speaks of the eschatological rewards of the almsgiving.[7]

Another antiphon also with two options for the verse explicitly cites VgPs 44 in one of them while in the midst of using the image of the lamps from Matt 25:

The five wise virgins took oil in their vases for their lamps. But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the bridegroom comes, go out to meet Christ the Lord.
(Verse 1b): Listen, daughter and see, and incline your ear, for the king has desired your beauty.
But at midnight a cry was made: Behold, the bridegroom comes, go out to meet Christ the Lord.[8]

This responsaries specifically identifies the bridegroom as Jesus and stitches together VgPs 44:11a, 12a into a harmonious whole. This move mutually reinforces the interpretative connections between Matt 25 and virgin saints and VgPs 44 as well.

However, there is a second correlation that could be masked by the more obvious relationship between the virgins in the passage and the ascetical class of virgins in the Western Church. Indeed, this second correlation only becomes visible when lectionary selections are viewed across categories. The parables of the gospels are found in various places in the most prevalent Anglo-Saxon lectionaries, but the parables of Matt 13 and 24–25 are particularly appointed for the saints. In a representative Anglo-Saxon lectionary, the Gospel list contained in London, BL, Cotton Tiberius A.ii,[9] Matthew 13:44-52, a cluster of three kingdom parables, is appointed eight times, all for feasts of virgins and their companions.[10] Likewise the parable of the industrious servant in Matt 24:42-47 is appointed six times, generally for feasts of popes and bishops.[11] Our parable of the wise and foolish virgins is appointed for five occasions—again, virgin saints.[12] Finally the following parable of the talents (Matt 25:14-23) appears just four times also on feasts of bishops and popes.[13] Thus, there is an overwhelming preference to assign the Matthean parables of the kingdom to saints. As a result, there would be no doubt in the early medieval mind that the protagonists of the parable would be saints of some kind.

[1] This Commune Sanctorum is typically found after the listings for the temporal and sanctoral cycles. Sometimes the dedication of a church is included with these as well.

[2] Vigilia sive natali unius apostoli [f. 204r.], natali plurimorum apostolorum [f. 204v.], vigiliis sanctorum martirum [f. 205r.], natali unius martyris [f. 205v.], natali plurimorum martyrum [f. 206r.], vigiliis sanctorum confessorum [f. 206v.], natali unius confessoris [f. 207r.], natali plurimorum confessorum [f. 208r.], natali virginum et martyrum [f. 208v.], and natali plurimorum sanctorum communiter [f. 209v.].

[3] These are homilies CH II.33-39.

[4] Antiphons 3730, 4543, 4953a, 4953b.

[5] Responsaries 6151, 6760, 6806, 6807, 6809, 7139, 7228, 7496, 7667, 7668, 7803, [“Ecce” is unnumbered].

[6] Non eris inter virginis fatuas, dicit Dominus, sed eris inter virgins prudentes; accipientes oleum laetitiae lampadibus suis, obviantes obviaverunt Sponso cum palma virginitatis.

[7] NPNF1 8.605-6 Enn. Ps. 126.10-11.

[8] COA 7496: Quinque prudentes virgines acceperunt oleum in vasis suis cum lampadibus. Media autem nocte clamor factus est: Ecce sponsus venit, exite obviam Christo Domino.

V. B. Audi filia et vide et inclina aurem tuam, quia concupivit rex speciam tuam. – Media.

[9] This is Lenker’s Qe.

[10] St Lucia (Dec 13), St Prisca (Jan 18), Octave of St Agnes (Jan 28), St Pudentiana (May 18), St Praxedis (Jul 21), St Sabina (Aug 29), and Sts Eufemia, Lucia, Geminianus (Sep 16) and for the Common of Several Virgins.

[11] St Marcellus (Jan 16), St Urban (May 25), St Eusebius (Aug 14), St Augustine of Hippo (Aug 28), St Calistus (Oct 14), and the Common of One Confessor.

[12] St Agnes (Jan 21), an alternate for the Octave of St Agnes (Jan 28), St Agatha (Feb 5), St Cecilia (Nov 22), and the Common of Several Virgins.

[13] St Leo (Apr 11), St Martin (Nov 11), St Silvester (Dec 31), and Common of One Confessor.

2 thoughts on “On Wise and Foolish Virgins

  1. lutherpunk

    When I was out at Columbia for my last D.Min. class, this parable was not only read, but interpretive dance was performed. Oh yeah, interpretive dance! It was everything I could do to keep from busting out in deep belly laughs.

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