Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
November 6, 2006
Wis 6:12-16; 1Thess4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13
1) In today’s Gospel, Jesus uses an image that perhaps to us might seem a little strange about the practices involving a wedding, but the details would have been very well understood by his contemporaries and by many of those still living in Palestine. There were two main stages in a marriage. The first would be the exchange of vows. When this took place, they were married, but they would continue to live apart for a while, even up to a year, while the husband prepared everything to welcome his new wife into his home. It was during this time, for example, that the Archangel Gabriel appeared to Mary; she was already wedded to Joseph but they had not started to live under the same roof. The second stage was when the bridegroom, the husband, would come to the house of the bride to pick her up and take her to his home. He would be accompanied by all the guests from his side as he went to her home. There he would meet her and all the guests from her side, her bridesmaids and others, who would be waiting for him along the way. Both groups would process back together to his home and when they arrived, they would celebrate the nuptials for eight days with all their friends and family — something they would consider far more enjoyable than leaving all of them behind for a honeymoon.
2) The bridegroom could come at any time to pick up his bride and so people needed to be ready. Before he would come, he would send out a herald who would announce along the path, “Behold the Bridegroom is coming,” but the Husband himself could come within hours, days, up to a week. He could come in the middle of the night. There was a law that said that if one were out at night, one had to have a lamp, which was not only common sense but prevented any ambushes, etc. People could either wait with the bride or accompany the bridegroom — but most would prefer the latter because it was less walking! As soon as the Bridegroom took his Bride into his house, the doors really would be shut, to prevent latecomers crashing their party. This wedding tradition, which was universal at Jesus’ time, is still found today in certain parts of the Holy Land and Middle East.
3) Jesus used that image as the background to communicate to us how we should be living our life in preparation for the return of Jesus Christ, the Bridegroom, at the end of our life or at the end of the world, whichever comes first. Jesus contrasts five wise bridesmaids versus five foolish ones, wanting us to imitate the lessons we see in the five wise ones. November is the month in which the whole Church reflects on the four last things — death, judgment, heaven and hell. By this image Jesus tries to help us prepare well for the first two, so that we may experience the third and avoid the fourth. But for this to happen, we need to learn three crucial lessons from the wise virgins.
4) The first lesson is VIGILANCE for the Bridegroom’s coming. The heralds have already gone out to announce that Jesus is coming. He is already married to his bride the Church, but he’s awaiting the time in which he will be able to celebrate with the wedding banquet that will last not just eight twenty-four hour periods, but be an eternal eighth day (the day of resurrection, the new and eternal “first day of the week”). All of us have been given invitations and are members of the wedding party. Jesus wants us there. But we have to be ready to go with him whenever he arrives. Death, for a Christian, is not meant to be a scary thing. It’s the time when Jesus the Bridegroom comes for us to take us to His home when we will celebrate with him forever. We’re called to await him with eager longing, with great expectation. He wants the lamps of our hearts burning for him, full of the oil of love. In today’s second reading, St. Paul says he wants us “to encourage one another with these words,” the words he gave us about the meaning of Christian death. Because Christian death is the return of the Bridegroom and the entrance of one who deeply longs for his return into the eternal nuptial banquet, Christians should “not grieve as those who have no hope” after the death of loved ones. We always have hope, not just for them if they lived in expectation of the Lord’s return, but we have hope ourselves that one day he will come for us. For certain, the best way for us to stay alert for the return of the Bridegroom is for us to be ready, with hearts burning with love, for the presence of the Bridegroom NOW. The more we long for Jesus in the Eucharist, the more we will long to share eternal communion with him. The more we attentively listen to his Word in Sacred Scripture, the more prepared we will be to hear even the softest footsteps of his advent. The more we seek to recognize him in the persons and events of each day, and love and embrace them as we would love and embrace Christ, the more ready we will be ready to embrace Christ when he appears without disguise.
5) The second thing Jesus teaches us in the image of the ten bridesmaids is that THERE ARE CERTAIN THINGS WE CANNOT BORROW. Just as the unwise virgins didn’t have enough oil for their own lamps — and oil stands for expectant love for the Lord — so we can’t borrow anyone else’s faith, hope or love. We need to have our own, otherwise we’ll be caught unready and be left outside. I can’t count how many times people who aren’t faithful to the practice of the faith say when I am trying to cajole them into greater fidelity, “I don’t come to Mass, father, but my wife comes all the time.” On other occasions, people who are ineligible for a sponsor certificate to become a godparent because they don’t practice the faith, have said, “But my grandmother is one of the most active parishioners in the parish.” Sometimes they will try to name-drop to obtain one, by saying, “But my cousin is a priest.” To all of them, I explain to them that there are certain things we cannot borrow, and one of them is another’s relationship with the Lord. We can’t borrow another’s faith. We can’t borrow another’s expectant hope. We can’t borrow another’s soul or spiritual life. And for those who are faithful to Christ, there’s a lesson here, too, that there are certain things we cannot lend. While Jesus wants us to give of ourselves to others, to share with others freely the gifts He has so lavishly shared with us, there are certain things that we cannot give even to those we love. There are certain things that they must do for themselves. One is to develop this relationship with the Lord, this eager, expectant, vigilant, faithful love for God. Those who think that they can borrow other’s relationships with the Lord when the Lord comes are indeed foolish, as Jesus says about the unwise bridesmaids.
6) The third lesson is that THERE IS A TIME THAT CAN BE TOO LATE. The unwise virgins were caught off guard. They couldn’t borrow oil, so they had to try to obtain some on their own, but they missed the bridegroom and were locked out. They knocked on the door saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But then he replied with the words that I think are the saddest and most frightening in all of Sacred Scripture: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” For the Lord to know us, for us to be on time for the wedding banquet, we have to spend our time here getting to know him intimately, as a friend, as a savior, as God. Many of us often put off the most important thing in the life, which is to make God number one in our lives. We allow the devil to deceive us by saying, “There’s always time.” We can allow him to insinuate that we can behave like the Good Thief, commit our sins, do our own thing in this life, and that the Lord Jesus will give us the chance at the end to say one prayer and everything we will work out. If we were to think that, though, we would be as foolish as the foolish virgins in the parable. Jesus tells us that there will be a time when there will be no time left. There will be a time when the door will be shut. Now is the time for us to get to know the Lord so that the Lord may never say, “I don’t know you.” Now is the time for us to prepare for his return. All of us have known people who have died unexpectedly, even young people. Even the healthiest person is this Church could die today. The Lord in today’s Gospel tells us that the wise among us will always be prepared. The moral he gives at the end of today’s parable is crystal clear: “Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” To be awake means never to be asleep to God, but always to be alert, full of love, waiting for his return.
7) Three lessons: an eager, expectant waiting for the Lord’s coming in all his ways; a recognition that we can’t borrow what we’re going to need to meet the Lord when we comes; and a loving admonition from the Lord not to procrastinate on our preparations until it’s too late. This Mass is meant to help us with each of the three. If we’re truly ready to meet the Lord each week here, with our souls clean from serious sins, with our hearts hungering for Him, with the Lord himself, the Light of the World, burning inside of us fueled by the oil of love, we’ll never be caught off guard, whether he comes today, tomorrow, or ninety years from now. Our reaction to today’s word of the Lord, and to the tremendous gift that is the Mass which is offered here every day, will determine whether in the final analysis we’re stupid or we’re wise. “The Bridegroom is here. Let us go out to meet Christ the Lord!”