32nd. Sunday of Year (A)
(Wisdom 6:12-16; 1st. Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13)
You have heard today’s parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins many times, People of God, and you might therefore be inclined to prefer a homily which deals with other matters such as important contemporary issues in society, or good causes that cry out for our attention; it is, after all, much more interesting to hear something new, even if you do not fully agree with it, than to hear and go over once again something you think you already know quite well.
However, Dr. Samuel Johnson, one of the wisest men and greatest literary figures this country has ever produced, once famously remarked that Christians have much greater need to be reminded of things already heard than they have to hear of new things. Following his advice, therefore, let us look at the parable once again.
Who is the bridegroom mentioned in the beginning?
The kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
We know for sure that it is Jesus from the answer Jesus gave when He was once questioned about the behaviour of His disciples:
The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were fasting. Then they came and said to Jesus, "Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the friends of the bridegroom fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days. (Mark 2:18-20)
And John the Baptist gave a beautiful testimony to Jesus as the Bridegroom, when he declared:
A man can receive nothing unless it has been given to him from heaven. You yourselves bear me witness that I said, 'I am not the Christ,' but, 'I have been sent before Him.' He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Therefore, this joy of mine is fulfilled. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27-30)
Jesus, therefore, is indeed the Bridegroom at the wedding feast in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that, I think most of you already knew. However, there is, strangely enough, no suggestion of who the Bride might be. Let us now, therefore, think a little more closely about her.
One of the most momentous and uncompromising statements ever made by Jesus concerned the relationship between a man and his wife:
Have you not read that He Who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let not man separate. (Matthew 19:4-6)
Man and wife, Bridegroom and Bride, become one flesh. The Bride for Jesus, the heavenly Bridegroom, is Mother Church, that is, saved humanity, all those men and women who will be one with Jesus and with each other as members of that glorified, heavenly Body of which He is the Head. As we read in the letter to the Ephesians:
May (we) grow up in all things into Him who is the head -- Christ -- from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (4:15-16)
And at the heavenly wedding-feast, all those true children of Mother Church, all those living members of the Body of Christ, will be recognised as children of God the Father, because they share in the flesh of Him who is both the heavenly Lord of Mother Church and the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father.
Therefore, the ten virgins waiting for the Bridegroom represent the whole of mankind called to become the Bride, called to enter with Christ as members of His Body into the wedding-feast of Heaven. Five, half of them, however, carried out their duties on behalf of the community so negligently and foolishly that they were found to be definitively unfit to enter into the feast.
Due to the delayed appearance of the bridegroom, all ten of the virgins had grown tired, just as we ourselves, indeed, would grow tired under such circumstances, for very few of us like the exhausting tension of delayed expectation. There was no fault in such weariness.
However, when the cry had gone up that the Bridegroom’s arrival was imminent, and all ten virgins had dutifully set about trimming their lamps since those lamps were quite small -- not being meant light up the way so much as to show that someone was attentively waiting, ready and willing to welcome the Bridegroom -- when, after such a long delay, they had tried to trim their flames to burn brighter, they found that there was too little oil in their lamps to support a bigger flame. Once again, that of itself was natural enough and without blame.
However, it had always been a strong possibility, nay even a probability, that the Bridegroom would be delayed in his arrival due to friends and neighbours congratulating him on his way to the wedding-feast, and those foolish virgins were consequently shown to be most seriously at fault in that they had not taken precautions against any such contingency by bringing an extra supply of oil with them. And now, at the very moment of the Bridegroom’s arrival those five had been obliged to go off in search of more oil for their lamps and consequently were not able to welcome the Bridegroom, which was an insult to the Bridegroom, a betrayal of the splendid preparations planned by the whole community, and a disgrace for themselves.
Sadly, many Christians likewise grow tired of waiting for the Lord to manifest His presence and His power in their lives; and -- like the foolish virgins of our parable --not having grown sufficiently in virtue as a result of having paid little attention to their understanding and practice of the Faith, they are often found to be too proud in mind, too impatient in temperament, and too weak in faith, to be able to wait for the Lord with faithful devotion and humble expectancy. As Jesus once said:
Many false prophets will rise up and deceive many. And because lawlessness will abound, the love of many will grow cold. But he who endures (that is, those individuals who endure) to the end shall be saved. (Matthew 24:11-13)
Many hearts, Jesus said, indeed -- near the end – most, will grow cold through waiting. That can already be seen in these our days when lawlessness of the most primal and degrading, and also most outrageously proud and exuberant sort, proclaims itself so loudly and openly that some, though having been brought up as Catholics, on seeing that the flow of life around them is becoming a torrent both wild and dangerous, begin think that they too, perhaps, should be experiencing something exciting or doing something different or special in and with their lives, not apparently wasting them by continuing with what seems to be futile, namely, devoutly loving the Lord and patiently waiting for and trusting in Him. If He does not quickly show His hand, so to speak, by bestowing tangible blessings, these stop looking for Him and, at the best, turn to proving their own worth by winning the world’s approval for publicly good works, or else – less good but much more likely -- to proving their own worth by winning the acknowledgement of others by working in the world’s way for what the world prizes.
Here we should try to get things clearly into focus. Good works are always, as the words say, good of themselves. However, the spiritual value of good works can easily be diverted from God’s account, so to speak, to bolster the public credit of the one doing those works; or they can be personally treasured and dwelt upon in such a way as to provide the doer with a warm feeling of self-approval and self-esteem, a more secret and perhaps more secure way of escape from the emptiness of the apparently unnoticed and wearisome devotion of waiting for and attending to Jesus. This warm glow of self-satisfaction and/or the welcome praise of others can very easily become death-dealing substitutes for Jesus Who alone, as the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, is totally life-giving both in His death on Calvary for us and in His most holy Eucharist with us and for us.
Jesus, however, does want, above all, our personal love; He wants us to make personal love for Him and obedience to and trust in Him the very centre of our lives. As you will well remember, He once said (John 15:13):
Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for one's friends.
Now, love for Jesus has grown cold when a Catholic is unwilling to die to self for His sake: when waiting patiently for Him, obeying Him, is too like dying and therefore unacceptable. In that way too many, even some of the better Catholics and Christians, shy away from attending on, waiting for, Jesus with deep personal love and patient, humble, service and praise, in order to give expression to themselves in welcome activities which show to others their personal abilities while giving themselves a most welcome psychological boost. In such cases, the works remain good works but they no longer bear witness to a true and total personal love for Jesus, just as the foolish virgins, though they were waiting together with the wise virgins, could not trim their lamps when the Bridegroom arrived and were not there to welcome Him. Those foolish virgins could not light a true flame of personal love for Jesus because He, Personally, did not occupy, fill, their minds and hearts so much as the things they were doing, ostensibly for Him but really for themselves.
This type of thing, carried to the worst extreme, once led Jesus to say to the Pharisees:
You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. (Luke 16:15)
People of God, seek, above all, to personally love the Person of Jesus at all times and in all circumstances. When you are in Church, keep your eyes on Him, so to speak, by listening to His Word, admiring His goodness and wisdom, and by trying to understand and appreciate His teaching; receive Him in the Eucharist out of a desire to sincerely open up your whole life to the purifying flame of His most Holy Spirit, indeed, pray that the Holy Spirit might inspire and enable you to love Jesus more and serve Him ever better. Only work that is motivated by such personal love and longing for Jesus can bear fruit for eternal life.
The love of most will grow cold: the five foolish virgins, having waited long, were not able to turn up the flame of their witness -- personal love for Jesus – when the Bridegroom ultimately arrived. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight. Think on these things, and may God’s blessing be with you.