In the first episode of the fourth season of the popular television series, Vikings, legendary ruler and warrior, Ragnar Lothbrok, sees a vision of Valhalla. According to Norse mythology, half of all warriors who fall in battle are taken by spirits of war, called the valkyries, to this “hall of the slain” belonging to the pagan god Odin. The hall is depicted as a splendid palace with an unending banquet of food and drink. Norsemen saw it as the highest honor to live there in the afterlife.
In the opening scene, Ragnar runs towards the immense gold doors of Valhalla, which are quickly closing. He can see the beautiful light inside and hear sounds of feasting and singing. Visions of his violent life flash before his eyes. As the doors shut before he can get inside, Ragnar falls prostrate on the front steps in despair.
In our eight-week message series leading up to Advent, called More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion, we have been looking at some of the uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the gospels. We’ve been reading through the latter part of the gospel of Matthew. Jesus has spoken of neglected vineyards, deserted banquets, the demands of Christian discipleship, and the danger of hypocrisy.
He then turns his attention to the events connected with the end of the age, setting before us scenes of judgment and distress, a temple in ruins, and a period of “great tribulation” before the coming of the Son of Man at an unknown day and hour (Matthew 24:1-44). This “eschatological discourse” continues with a series of three parables followed by a dramatic judgment scene that we will hear about in two weeks.
While all three of the parables stress the need for watchfulness and preparedness in the time leading up to the coming of the Son of Man at the end of the age, the parable of the ten virgins this week puts the point rather starkly. The doors to the unending wedding banquet will be locked to those of us who do not have sufficient oil for our lamps to find our way inside the great hall.
The oil for those lamps corresponds to good works that we perform while living on earth. Indeed, Jesus earlier compared good deeds to the light of a lamp that must “shine before others” (Matthew 5:16). To those of us who come with unlit lamps, the bridegroom will say, “I do not know you,” and will refuse to open the doors to the banquet hall. It is the same response those of us who merely pay lip service to the Lord but do not do “the will of the Father” will hear (Matthew 7:25).
As days grow shorter, the temperature outside begins to fall, and wintry weather settles into place, our thoughts naturally turn toward the last things. Indeed, we pray for the dead throughout the month of November. As Saint Ambrose wrote in the fourth century, “[w]e should have a daily familiarity with death, a daily desire for death. . . . The soul has to turn away from the aimless paths of this life . . . and reach out to those assemblies in heaven . . . to sing the praises of God,” who destroyed death forever. “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Father Roger Gustafson