Many years ago I worked in a cafeteria in northern Virginia with a large group of people who mostly knew each other and lived in the same neighborhood. Around the 4th of July, they all decided to have a party, and out of politeness invited me, even though I was a stranger. They told me the party would start at “six” and I dutifully showed up at six sharp with a dish to pass. Little did I know that, in the local culture, things tended to start about two hours after the stated time. It was a lot like what we used to call “Hawaiian time” when I lived on Oahu. Anyhow, I was the only one there at 6pm, and by 7:30 I had eaten my own dish and was hanging around with still just 2 or 3 other people. I ended up going home before the party ever really got going.
In the Gospel Reading for this Lord’s Day, we have five young women who, like me, weren’t prepared to wait for the party to start. The Readings are full of images of the wise person who is prepared for the “long haul”—that is, to endure to the end and to stand upright before God at the final judgment.
Our First Reading is taken from the Book of Wisdom:
Reading 1 Wis 6:12-16
Resplendent and unfading is wisdom,
and she is readily perceived by those who love her,
and found by those who seek her.
She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire;
Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed,
for he shall find her sitting by his gate.
For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence,
and whoever for her sake keeps vigil
shall quickly be free from care;
because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her,
and graciously appears to them in the ways,
and meets them with all solicitude.
Given that it is a relatively short Old Testament book (and a deuterocanonical, at that), Wisdom is read quite often in the contemporary Lectionary. This late book incorporates themes and motifs from early wisdom books like Proverbs and Song of Songs, and enriches them with further divine insights. This passage of Wisdom was probably inspired first of all by the poem about Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 9, but the sacred author takes the images further. While Proverbs speaks of Wisdom calling out from the heights, here we have Lady Wisdom actively seek out those who seek her.
In relation to our Gospel reading, Lady Wisdom is actually a type of Christ, despite the gender disparity. The Fathers had none of our modern gender dysphoria, and at the same time had no hesitation about applying feminine images in the Old Testament to a very masculine Jesus. Our text says, “whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care”, and this has in mind the wise virgins who kept vigil waiting for the Bridegroom to arrive in our Gospel. While the world may think we are foolish as Christians to live our lives in expectation of the return of Christ, who is the incarnate wisdom of God (1 Cor 1:24), it is indeed the highest wisdom to wait for the coming of the one who alone can share with us God’s wisdom. How does Jesus “hasten to make himself known in anticipation of their desire”? Through the Eucharist, where he comes to us weekly (or even daily) as we await his final coming.
P. Our Responsorial is Psalm Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8:
R. (2b) My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
O God, you are my God whom I seek;
for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts
like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus have I gazed toward you in the sanctuary
to see your power and your glory,
For your kindness is a greater good than life;
my lips shall glorify you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
Thus will I bless you while I live;
lifting up my hands, I will call upon your name.
As with the riches of a banquet shall my soul be satisfied,
and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
I will remember you upon my couch,
and through the night-watches I will meditate on you:
You are my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.
R. My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God.
This Psalm reminds us that our longing for the return of Christ is very similar to David’s ancient longing to be in God’s presence at all times. David says: “For you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts.” This is the imagery of a longing love, like the imagery of hunger and thirst of the bride and bridegroom for each other in the Song of Songs. “I will remember you upon my couch and through the night-watches I will meditate on you,” David says. This evocative image is of the king sleeping through the night in ancient Jerusalem, where the different hours of the night were called out periodically by the city’s night watchman, an officer in charge of the soldiers who guarded the city walls through the night. During those long hours between periodic announcements of the passing time, David pondered the Lord in his heart, communing with his God in his spirit. In so doing David was, in a sense, keeping vigil for divine wisdom. He is like the wise virgins who waited through the night in order to be present for the Bridegroom.
2. Our Second Reading is 1 Thes 4:13-18:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
about those who have fallen asleep,
so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.
For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,
so too will God, through Jesus,
bring with him those who have fallen asleep.
Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord,
that we who are alive,
who are left until the coming of the Lord,
will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep.
For the Lord himself, with a word of command,
with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God,
will come down from heaven,
and the dead in Christ will rise first.
Then we who are alive, who are left,
will be caught up together with them in the clouds
to meet the Lord in the air.
Thus we shall always be with the Lord.
Therefore, console one another with these words.
It is widely believed that the two epistles to the Thessalonians were some of Paul’s first letters, written in an early period when Christians expected the Lord’s return at any moment. For this reason, Paul teaches them about the return of Christ, but urges them to be busy with good works as they wait. Here, we have one of St. Paul’s most explicit teaches about how the second coming of Christ will take place.
St. Paul uses the common early Christian euphemism of “sleep” to refer to those who have physically died. This usage comes from Jesus himself, who refers to the dead Lazarus, for example, as “sleeping.” The point of this metaphor is to stress the temporary nature of death, that just as one awakes from sleep, so one will rise from the dead at the end of time. Some, though, have taken the metaphor too far, as implying that the dead in Christ are in an unconscious state until the return of the Lord. This idea, called the heresy of soul sleep, is contradicted by imagery in the Book of Revelation which portrays the physically dead in Christ as conscious and active, as well as by the Church’s Tradition, which has always rejected the idea of unconsciousness during the intermediate state.
St. Paul teaches that, at the second coming of Christ in glory, those who have died will experience the resurrection of their bodies before those who are living at the second coming will be united to the Lord. This text does not teach the idea of a sudden or secret “rapture”, when all Christians will be instantaneously “beamed up” from the earth, leaving the final days of human history to be lived out by those who rejected the Lord. This “rapture” idea is a modern theological concept with it’s roots in British and American Protestantism in the nineteenth century. For a critique, see Carl Olsen’s book, Will Catholics Be Left Behind.
St. Paul commands us to “console one another with these words” about the Second Coming of Christ, and it strikes me that we do not always meditate on the return of Christ or derive much hope from it, though we should. We spend a great deal of time in sadness over the setbacks of this life and various contradictions or even persecutions that we suffer, but it’s healthy to remember that we are playing in a game we know we have won.
I can’t stand watching my favorite sports teams playing in a game, only to see them lose at the last minute, so my family knows I don’t watch any games in real time. I wait till the game is over, check the score—and if my team won, I watch the replay online the next day. Yes, I know I’m not a true sports fan, but I can’t stand the investment of time to watch if it is all going to be for “nothing.”
Well, in the game of life, God has shown us the final score and we know who wins! This should give us hope and joy, even if in the present it feels like we are down by three or more scores.
G. Our Gospel is Mt 25:1-13:
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
“The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins
who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
The foolish ones, when taking their lamps,
brought no oil with them,
but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.
Since the bridegroom was long delayed,
they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
At midnight, there was a cry,
‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.
The foolish ones said to the wise,
‘Give us some of your oil,
for our lamps are going out.’
But the wise ones replied,
‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you.
Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’
While they went off to buy it,
the bridegroom came
and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him.
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.’
Therefore, stay awake,
for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
We need to explain the imagery of this parable. Who is the Bridegroom? Obviously, this is Jesus, who is identified as the “Bridegroom” by John the Baptist in John 3. This image has its roots in the depiction of the LORD as the husband of Israel in the Old Testament Prophets (Jer 1-3, Hos 1-3, Isa 1-3, 54, 62; Ezek 16, 23), but also in the bridegroom imagery applied to the Davidic King, who as representative of the LORD also had a bridegroom-like relationship with Israel reflected in various OT texts (2 Sam 5:1-3; 2 Sam 17:1-3; Ps 45; Song of Songs; Zech 9:9; elsewhere). Jesus, as both God incarnate and the Son of David, is “bridegroom” in both his natures, so to speak.
Why the “virgins”? Historically, these would have been young women, companions of the bride, essentially bridesmaids. But in this parable, it is almost like they are all brides of the bridegroom, because they represent the Church, Christian believers all of whom are individually the spiritually brides of Jesus and corporately the one Bride of Christ.
The five wise and five foolish maidens do not represent Christians versus those who reject Christ, but rather Christians who persevere and those who do not. All ten are “virgins,” which refers to the Christian life in which we abstain from all that is impure and unlawful, not just impure sexuality but all sensual indulgence that is contrary to God’s law and to the rule of love. “Virginity” here is a symbol of the general temperance and self-control that characterizes the Christian life. It is never right to indulge in pleasure for pleasure’s sake alone. That doesn’t mean the Christian life is without pleasure, but simply that pleasure should be accepted gratefully from God as we pursue his kingdom and his righteousness, or to put it another way, love of God and love of neighbor. As we pursue the dual love, there will be times of joy and pleasure, even physical pleasure, but we don’t seek after it as an end itself, which would selfishness and a denial of love.
So notice that all ten are “virgins”—i.e. Christians who have adopted the lifestyle of love rather than sensuality—and all ten have “lamps”, which the Church Fathers (rightly I think) usually associated with good works on the basis of Matt 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works.”
So the distinction between the wise and foolish virgins is not between believer and unbeliever, but between the persevering disciple and the non-persevering, similar to the distinction between the good seed and the seed that fell on rocky soil in Matt 13.
The “wise” virgins are described as having brought extra oil, whereas the foolish did not. The Fathers expended effort trying to identify what aspect of the Christian life was symbolized by the oil, but I suspect it is not a one-for-one correspondence. The point, rather, seems to be that the wise were prepared for a long wait, whereas the foolish weren’t. The foolish virgins are, therefore, like the man who didn’t count the cost before beginning to build the tower, i.e. a disciple who is not prepared for the endurance that it will take to remain faithful until death or the Lord’s return.
The basic message, then, is that the wise disciple of the Lord not only practices temperance and good works, which are non-negotiables for any true disciple, but is also prepared to keep up this lifestyle of vigilance for as long as it takes to meet the Lord face-to-face. The foolish virgins do not plan for the long haul, they do not expect to have to wait and endure.
Having said that, there can be some spiritual profit to pondering the symbolism of the oil. Some Fathers identify it with charity, since without charity, chastity/temperance and good works are nothing (1 Cor 13). Others identify it with joy, based on the motif of the “oil of gladness” in the Old Testament (Ps 45:7; Isa 61:3; Heb 1:9). It can also be identified with the Holy Spirit, because oil is associated throughout Scripture with the Holy Spirit. In fact, the ritual of anointing with oil was supposed to symbolize being endowed with the Spirit of God (see 1 Sam 16:13; Isa 61:1-2). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit is within us the source of our charity (Rom 5:5) and of our joy, for the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22). In this sense, the foolish virgins are those who do not “take along enough of the Spirit” to endure till the coming of the bridegroom. This could represent trying to live the Christian life in our own power, in the flesh. But that cannot last. Only those virgins endure who have learned to rely on the oil of the Holy Spirit to keep their lamps of good works alight, working with the strength of God and not in their own strength. And how do we fill up with reserves of the oil of the Spirit? Only through prayer (Luke 11:13), faith (Gal 3:2,5,14), and the sacraments (John 3:5; Acts 2:38). All three, and not missing one, because prayer and sacraments without faith is not effective, nor is faith and sacraments without prayer, nor faith and prayer without the sacraments. These three are a cord of three strands not easily broken, that continues to refill us with the oil of the Spirit. The Spirit works in us his fruit, especially love and joy, without which it is not possible to endure. The cold and joyless Christian cannot maintain his spiritual life until he sees the Lord. Love and joy give us strength and energy, which is perhaps why Pope Francis emphasizes the joy of the Gospel so frequently.
Therefore, this Gospel is calling us to be the “wise virgins” who are prepared for Christ. This includes the life of temperance— being “chaste” not only in sexuality but with respect to all physical pleasures—with lamps lit with good works, but burning not our own fuel but powered by the Holy Spirit, the “fuel” of God flowing through us that we receive continually through prayer, faith, and the sacraments.