“THEREFORE, STAY AWAKE,
FOR YOU KNOW NEITHER THE DAY NOR THE HOUR.”
- There is an old story of a jester who sometimes made very wise utterances. One day, the jester had said something so foolish that the king, handing him a staff, said to him, “Take this, and keep it till you find a bigger fool than yourself.” Some years later, the king was very ill, and lay on his deathbed. His courtiers were called; his family and his servants also stood round his bedside. The king, addressing them, said, “I am about to leave you. I am going on a very long journey, and I shall not return again to this place: so I have called you all to say ‘Goodbye’.” Then his jester stepped forward and, addressing the king, said, “Your Majesty, may I ask a question? When you journeyed abroad visiting your people, staying with your nobles, or paying diplomatic visits to other courts, your heralds and servants always went before you, making preparations for you. May I ask what preparations your Majesty has made for this long journey that he is about to take?” “Alas!” replied the king, “I have made no preparations.” “Then,” said the jester, “take this staff with you, for now I have found a bigger fool than myself.”
‘The parable of the Ten Virgins,’ which we hear today in the Gospel Reading also speaks about the need of being prepared in our life for coming future event. Of the ten, five were considered foolish, because they were not prepared for the bridegroom’s coming; while the other five were considered wise, because they were prepared. What about us? Are we vigilant and prepared for the Lord’s coming whenever he comes? Today’s parable warns us – “Therefore, stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.”
Today is the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time and we have come closer to the end of our Liturgical Year. Over the next 3 Sundays, the readings will focus our attention on the ‘End Time’ marked by the ‘Second Coming of Christ.’ This Sunday the Scripture Readings in different forms remind us of eternal life after this earthly life and underline the importance of remaining vigilant and being prepared to meet the Lord at all times. The Book of Wisdom, in the First Reading affirms the immortality of the soul and promises the gift of the Divine personification of Wisdom to all who seek her. The stress is on the desire of those who want to live wisely; wisdom will be granted to those who search for God’s meaning and purpose in life. In the Gospel Reading from St. Matthew, we hear about ‘The Parable of Ten Virgins,’ where the Evangelist changes the emphasis on the theme of eternal life to stress the necessity of being awake and prepared for the Lord’s coming and the definitive establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus tells of a division between those who prepare themselves for the patient wait for the proverbial spouse and those who do not. He speaks of a lost opportunity as those who should have been ready are shut out. In the Second Reading from his 1st Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul reminds the Christians at Thessalonica of the true meaning of death for the Christian. The sleep of death is converted into a risen life and all Christians, both living and those who have already died, ‘shall always be with the Lord.’ It is the Second Coming of Christ that is to comfort and strengthen Christians here on earth and they are urged to remain in readiness for it.
“WISDOM IS THE PERFECTION OF PRUDENCE”
Wisdom is greatly prized by the traditions of the world; it is a knowledge that helps us understand the things that really matter and enables us to anticipate the unforeseen and to be prepared. It is the perfection of prudence. The Book of Wisdom belongs to a set of Old Testament writings that give expression to a spirituality nourished by an outlook that comes from living one’s life in harmony with the ways of God. In the First Reading from the the Book of Wisdom, Wisdom is personified and presented as an alluring woman because of her Divine origin, unfading, caring and waiting for the one who searches for her. It is in fact a literal personification of the attribute of God, as sought by us and seeking for us. The Divine Wisdom is never denied to all those who are worthy and are honest in their quest. Moreover, Wisdom actively searches for those who yearn and keep vigil for her – for those who, in loving response, are worthy of her. The stress is on the desire of those who want to live wisely; wisdom will be granted to those who search for God’s meaning and purpose in life.
The fundamental problem with human beings is not that they lack knowledge. The problem is that a great many people simply don’t want to know. Many people have given up the search for truth and the pursuit of wisdom, because they know what they want, and what they want just might conflict with the truth, so they do not seek to discover whether what they want is truly good and in accordance with God’s will. In short, they don’t care. There’s an old adage, ‘There are none so blind as those who will not see,’ that is, those who choose not to see for fear of what they might discover.
“THUS WE SHALL ALWAYS BE WITH THE LORD.”
Today’s Second Reading from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to the Thessalonians is a Pauline masterpiece. Animated with divine wisdom, St. Paul assures the Thessalonians, distressed about the destiny of their loved ones who died before the Lord’s ‘Parousia’ or final coming. Would they miss the ‘Parousia’? Would they be omitted from that ultimate salvation? For, the expectation common among early Christians was that the Risen Jesus was to return to them very, very soon so as to take them out of their harsh world and put them in God’s kingdom.
St. Paul’s response is that they need not fear that their beloved dead would miss the glorious deliverance. Indeed, that we shall be united with the Lord always should be a deep consolation for us all. Actually, St. Paul is trying to instill hope into the Christians of Thessalonica. His message, in brief, is that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the proof and the guarantee of our own resurrection, and that God will take to himself those who have died with Christ. We died with Christ in baptism; we shall also share his resurrection. The confusion in the minds of the Thessalonians provides Paul with an occasion for describing what will happen at the end of time. His imagination tried to paint a visual image of what this transition from earthly life to heavenly life would look like, but his point is clear. His essential teaching is that all, whether already dead or still living when Christ comes, will be taken up with Christ into glory. Moreover, He has also made known that Jesus will come again at the end time as our Judge. Not knowing the day nor the hour when this will take place, we are asked to be constantly vigilant, to be always prepared for Christ’s final coming.
THE PARABLE OF THE TEN VIRGINS
Today’s Gospel text is the first of three eschatological parables of the Kingdom of Heaven, which we will hear on these final three Sundays of this Liturgical Year. They are situated in the context of St. Matthew’s discourse on the end times and the second coming of Christ, in Chapter 25. They are each famous for their ways of focusing our attention on how to live life in this world while preparing for life in the next world, in God’s kingdom. In fact, they are not about giving up earthly life, but rather, about how to engage this life ever more fully, responsibly, and thoughtfully!
‘The parable of the ten virgins’ at a wedding which we hear in the Gospel Reading of today is a homely tale climaxing in the crunch line, “Therefore, stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.” Jesus tells this parable to impress his followers of the supreme need of vigilance and watchfulness. The parable shows that some of his followers, who have been chosen to play a special role in the nuptials of Christ with his Church, will forfeit their place at the eternal nuptials in heaven through their carelessness and not positive malice. The image Jesus gave of marriage regarding the Kingdom of Heaven was easily understood by his hearers. The reference here is primarily to the Second Coming of Christ as he comes in glory to judge all mankind. On that day his kingdom will be completed and the eternal triumphal Kingdom of Heaven will begin. In this story Jesus illustrates what will happen on that day to some of those whom he had chosen and to whom he had given every facility to reach their one and only goal.
Again, today’s parable is found only in the Gospel of Matthew and it is partially an allegory told in the context of the culture and custom of a Jewish wedding of the time, which is different from ours. In this parable, Matthew is telling the Christian community that the return of the Lord may be delayed beyond their expectation and that they should, therefore, prepare for the long wait by providing enough oil for their lamps. Many details of the parable make good sense when seen against the framework of this principal theme. The bridegroom is Christ, the Lord. The bride is the Church. The ten virgins represent the totality of the members of the Church, as they await the Lord’s coming. On the basis of what happens later on, five are described as wise or sensible and five as foolish. Their wisdom here consists in their taking prudent steps to do what they need to do in order to come face to face with their Lord. The lamps, which all the virgins had, could represent faith which all Christians have. The oil, which some of them had and others did not, would then represent good works. A lamp without oil is like faith without good works – dead and useless.
Now, as we approach the end of the Liturgical Year, the Church, through the Gospel, invites us to contemplate the end – the end of our lives and the end of the world. The conclusion to be drawn from today’s Gospel parable is this: the time of the arrival of our Lord as judge of the universe, the day on which the eternal wedding feast of Christ with his elect will begin, is as uncertain as the arrival of the bridegroom. A follower of Christ cannot afford to be casual and unprepared for that moment. The situation can be compared to a student who studies his lessons regularly. When a surprise test is given, he is ready and passes it. He is like the wise virgins. On the other hand, the student who studies only when there is an announced test is like the foolish virgins. When a surprise test is given, he is not prepared and thus fails. Finally, when the final examination comes and having no regular study habits, he crams and, more often than not, fails the course. We are asked therefore to be like the wise virgins: to be always vigilant, to be always prepared. “Therefore, stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.”
Again, the way to prepare for the end is neither to live in fear and anxiety, or to go after prophets and visionaries that claim to have access to God’s secret calendar of how and when the world will end, nor it is a question of taking a gamble on making a last-minute confession on our deathbed. A surprising number of people do not die in their beds. It is a question rather of what I plan to do this very day and every day. There is absolutely no better way to prepare for the final call than, first, to put it completely out of one’s head, and, second, to learn to spend each and every day in the company of Jesus.
A story is told of an old and holy monk who was sweeping up the fallen leaves in the monastery grounds. A visitor saw him and asked, “What would you do, brother, if you knew that you were to die in ten minutes?” The old monk said, “I’d carry on sweeping.” Because the monk has always been vigilant, he is ready to meet his Judge anytime. We are asked to do the same so that when we stand before Jesus as our judge, He will say to us, “Come, enter into my Kingdom.”
Finally, in an emergency there are some things we can borrow from others at short notice. But we can also say in the context of today’s parable that the ‘oil’ of loving service is not strictly speaking transferable to others. Our preparedness to meet the Lord is something that is ultimately only our responsibility. No one can say ‘Yes’ to Christ on my behalf. So, while the foolish virgins went off to make up for lost and wasted time, those who were ready went into the wedding hall. Then the door was locked. All are invited, but not all get inside. All are called but few are among the chosen ones. This is not due to any partiality on the bridegroom’s part but because of the tardiness of some in responding to the invitation. The locked door means that access to Jesus is not automatic or to be altogether taken for granted. And that is precisely the warning in today’s parable – “Therefore, stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.” And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.