Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Wis 6:12-16; I Thes 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13.
One year ago today, who could have predicted all that would happen: globally, with the pandemic; nationally, with the racial protests and presidential elections; in our community, with the interim of abbatial leadership; in our personal lives with (you fill in the spaces)? We did not expect all that. Life is a constant drama of our trying to exercise some control and management over events, and then having to adjust and adapt in face of what happens – the unexpected. It can be an opportunity to reaffirm and deepen our beliefs in the face of changing circumstances. Or we may resort to “cognitive dissonance”: changing our beliefs to conform to our practice. It can become very exhausting. We can feel worn out, battling with acedia and even hopelessness. Our lamps are going out.
The ten virgins reveal something about ourselves. We have those inclinations which move us to foolishness or to wisdom. Five of the virgins may have been foolish, but they were not dumb. They may even have been too smart for their own good. They thought they knew what to expect. They may have performed this duty before for other weddings. They planned according to their reasonable expectations. Why waste money on oil when it could be used for other needs?
What they didn’t count on was the delay. Delays are unpredictable (and intolerable) disruptions of plans. For those who have let God’s will intervene in their lives, delays are not rare. Delay is the very manifestation of the unexpectedness of God. God is late and slow. He doesn’t synchronize with our timetables and schedules. The way he works eludes our categories and programs. The sovereignty of God will often bring us to our knees. His reasons and plans are wider than our own.
Those who have learned to recognize the patterns of God’s wisdom will be sensitive to its elusive presence. It is readily perceived by those who love her and found by those who seek her. Sometimes, the very collapse and shattering of our expectations are privileged instructions by Wisdom. Our losses and failures can teach us more about entering the Kingdom than our accomplishments and successes. Do not grieve like the rest who have no hope, Paul tells us. Tolkein’s description in Lord of the Rings captures this: His grief he will not forget, but it will not darken his heart. It will teach him wisdom.
The wise virgins are those who didn’t know what to expect. They had to be ready for anything. Their “unknowing” made them more attentive. They were extravagant in bringing extra flasks of oil. They manifested a total and uncalculating gift of themselves. Their flames fed on the fuel of a hope which was based in the coming Bridegroom, not on their own abilities. This is an interiorized wisdom. It is something that could only be personally learned through the experience that unfolds in one’s life. It is the wisdom, the reshaping of life’s hopes and expectations as they encounter the disruptions that come from the hand of God. It is not a transferable quantity nor one that could be sold by the merchants. It is learned and owned the hard way. It is being formed in the image of God. I know you. The delay is an opportunity. St. Benedict says that our life span has been lengthened by way of a truce, that we may amend our misdeeds. The patience of God is leading you to repent (Prologue of the Rule). This is a wisdom which may not meet all our expectations and may even disappoint us, but which will transform us into welcomed sharers in the Kingdom and the marriage feast of the Lamb.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: 2 Mac.7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thes. 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38.
You are a bad manager. That’s why you run out of time and money. You can’t manage your life. You need help. And there are plenty of advisors willing to help you to find a plan that will work. What works for the successful should work for you. Follow the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Satisfaction and security are around the corner. Life is for the fittest, the strongest, the richest. You just need to manage things better. Learn how to manage time, money, and people.
The Sadducees were good managers. They were on high councils and knew how to work with the occupying forces (the Romans). This collaboration supported the stability of the political and economic system of Judaism. Sometimes one needs to compromise to succeed in the real world, in this age. The conundrum they present to Jesus is postulated on the legal demands of their own system. The preservation and prolongation of Judaism depended upon a healthy birth rate. The woman married to seven brothers was only significant as a child-bearing supporter of this system. Of course, she would have to marry all the brothers. There is no question of her rights or dignity. What is sacred here is the survival and continuation of the religious and political system. Unlike the Maccabee brothers who were vividly conscious of their origins in the creative will of God, the managers are indifferent to origins and beginnings. Eternity is held hostage to the systematic ordering of expansion and extension. More of the same. The idea of eternity becomes a form of tedious monotony. More of the same. In his encyclical, Saved in Hope, Benedict XVI describes eternity as outside “before and after.” We should imagine ourselves as outside temporality… a supreme moment of satisfaction in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality. This is the sort of experience that uncovers the pretense of order and management to rule all reality. It is the penetration of the holy into the created order and where we experience the sacred. The King of the world will raise us up to live again forever. It is for his laws that we are dying. Another order, the coming age, has intervened and deflated the supposed all-embracing sovereignty of this age. For the Sadducees, the very idea of the resurrection was inconceivable and ridiculous because it subverted the consistency and certainty of their own premises.
t is really a wonder of religious creative imagination that Hebrew thinkers were able to develop an understanding and hope of resurrection from the dead. Out of the heart of their own trust in the active mercy and justice of God and the undeniable frustration of good and justice by forces of evil, they were able to envision an alternate possibility — resurrection and redemption into a new life. As the theology articulated by the brothers of our first reading states, it is the work of God completing what he had begun in creation, it includes the physical and temporal reality of our bodies (my hands), and it is the definitive revelation of the triumph of life and goodness over evil which seems to thrive in clouds of indeterminacy and compromise. Belief in the resurrection is rooted in the recognized incompleteness and irremediable lack of wholeness in this world. But deeper than this recognition is the heart’s knowledge that it is meant and called to seek a fullness that alone can give it life. He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive. The burning bush is still in our midst. The reality of God calling out to us to bring us to life opens the ears of our hearts in the midst of an unbelieving world. May we be delivered from perverse and wicked people, for not all have faith.
This faith is a knowledge forged in the heart and expressed in uncompromising deliberation. It refuses the callous redefinition of those sacred moments and places where the divine and holy is met into trivial and mundane fabrications. Why not eat the pork and save your life? Why not take a step or two outside that communion which is the creative source of real life? Why not reduce the symbols and sacraments of the movement of the holy into your life into disposable and dispensable bits of the commonplace? Why not replace your allegiance to the God of the covenant to the gods who will help you manage your life?
It is the believing and courageous heart that lives already in this world and age as a child of the age to come. This courage is faith and faith is courage. Romano Guardini articulates this courage as born in our knowledge of God:
The courage that accepts life and meets it bravely in each instance implies a conviction that
within us there is something that cannot be destroyed, but rather which derives nourishment
from everything, becomes stronger, richer, deeper through every experience rightly faced
and carried out, because this something comes from the creative power of God.
Actually, this something is the power of God itself. If in a favorable hour I penetrate quietly
and recollectedly into the inmost depths of my being, ever more deeply, until I, as it were,
reach the interior boundary of nothingness — there I find God’s power which maintains me in
existence. This preserving power is indestructible.
In faith and courage, we can begin to already experience the life of God within us. Like the brothers Maccabee, we will know that the God of creation who had the first word is the God of redemption who also has the last word.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13
“The Bridegroom was a long time in coming . . .” Brothers and sisters, Jesus spoke those words two thousand years ago – and we’re still waiting for the Bridegroom. And it looks like we could be waiting a while longer. Now, I have noticed, when someone comes to visit me at the monastery, and I arrange to meet them in the Guest House at, say 2:00 in the afternoon, they are very often late. Usually, they are just “fashionably late”, but sometimes they’re really, really late, and I’ve noticed that, when at last they show up, and they say, “Sorry. Were you waiting long?”, I always tell them “Oh no, no – not long at all!” even though, in some cases I feel like I’ve been standing around waiting for them forever. Why do I do that?
I have noticed there is in me a certain reluctance to be seen by another person as passive; as a passive man just standing around doing nothing. Which, I guess, surprises me a little because I am, after all, a monk and monks are seen by most people as rather passive men. But, it is my impression that the passivity of monks does not exactly endear us to people. Women seem a little more comfortable with monk’s passivity than men do. But ever since Rod Dreher’s book, “The Benedict Option”, came out, in which he claims that monks can teach people something about how to deal with the social and political turmoil of our time, I have noticed that women as well as men are, for the most part, quite critical of the book. I have heard just as many women as men say that it is wrong, it is cowardly, irresponsible, and a betrayal of Jesus’ command to go out into the whole world, for Rod Dreher to encourage people to “withdraw” from public life and “head for the hills”. But that is exactly what monks do. It is what we have done for sixteen hundred years. Did we get something wrong? And if monks are in truth just passive, good for nothing, ineffectual men, then why are so many people engaging with and energetically discussing a book which holds up our life as exemplary? I must say people today seem a bit conflicted: manifesting both a strong attraction and powerful repugnance to the life lived by cloistered monks.
Could it be, I wonder, that we monks are a sign; men whose witness points people toward a mystery very deep inside them: namely, a fundamental passivity that belongs essentially to our human condition and which many, (especially busy American people), are vehemently and vainly trying to pretend is not there? The ten virgins in today’s gospel manifest this shared human condition. Note there are two types: there are wise and there are stupid virgins, but one thing they all have in common is that they’ve been waiting around forever for the Bridegroom to show up and thus betray a certain innate passivity characteristic of them as human beings, and actually, end up, all of them, – falling asleep; all ten of them, the wise and the stupid are all found slumped over and snoring when the Bridegroom at last appears.
But the ten virgins, being the same are also different, because some have oil in their lamps and some don’t. “Oil”, brothers and sisters, is that innate human passivity I say “yes” to; that passivity I acknowledge and embrace as my own and as a gift. This “oil” is something precious, invaluable, and essential to happiness in this world. You cannot get by without it, and you cannot obtain this from someone else. You must understand I cannot give to you my passivity. That is a precious “oil” you need to find yourself and in yourself. How? You might try making a retreat at a Trappist monastery, and just try being still for a little while. Whatever way you do it, each of us has to locate and embrace his or her own deep well of passivity before God. When you have found in yourself this defining human core of passivity; the passivity of a creature before his Creator, this puts “oil” in your lamp; oil that soaks you through and through until you become something like a human wick, and if the Holy Spirit gets anywhere near you – you burst into flames, but then, what a splendid sight you will be for the Bridegroom to see on that night when at last he comes.
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: 2 Mac 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thes 2:16-3:5; Lk 20:27-38
False assumptions lead to wrong answers. Someone claims he can tell you the score of any football game with 100 percent accuracy before it even begins. Is that really possible? If your answer is no, you’re wrong. Because the score of every football game before it begins is always zero to zero. It’s a false assumption to think he means the final score. Here’s another question. Two train tracks run parallel to each other, except where they join and become one train track over a short narrow bridge. One morning, a train speeds onto the short bridge. Another train coming from the opposite direction, also speeds onto the same bridge. Did they crash? If your answer is yes, you’re wrong again. There was no collision because the trains crossed the bridge at different times in the morning. It’s a false assumption to think they are crossing at the same time. One more example. It’s a hot afternoon in August. A window is open and curtains are blowing in the very strong wind of a thunderstorm. The dead and bruised bodies of Hank and Lucy are on the floor lying in a pool of water and broken glass. They are completely naked. A young man holding a baseball bat stands over them with an angry look on his face. Does this look like a murder scene? Wrong again. Hank and Lucy are the young man’s goldfish. He’s angry because the baseball game was rained out, and the wind knocked over his goldfish bowl. False assumptions lead to wrong answers.
The Sadducees had many false assumptions. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body, or in angels, or eternal life. Their answers to life’s greatest questions were wrong because at death life is changed, not ended. The right answer to their question about marriage in heaven is that the imperfect union of married couples in this life gives way after death and resurrection to a perfect union in a heavenly marriage with God.
A seven year old girl told the story of Snow White, and how Prince Charming kissed her back to life. She asked her mother, “Do you know what happened next?” Her mother replied, “Yes, they lived happily ever after.” Suzie said, “No, they got married.” A comedian famous for his humor about marriage joked, “Someone stole all my credit cards, but I’m not going to report it. The thief is spending less than my wife.” In this life we are always, in a fundamental way, in exile from one another. We are created for union with God. In heaven we are all God’s bride.
But not for the Sadducees. The false assumption that there is no resurrection led them to the wrong answers about how to live and die, just like so many people in our own times. When there is no hope for eternal life, people look for rewards in this life, for wealth, power and pleasure. They do not know how to live or die.
The seven Maccabee brothers and their mother had the right assumptions about death and resurrection. They were prepared to make the greatest act of love which is martyrdom, just like the Christians who are dying today at the hands of ISIS in the Middle East. It is our hope for resurrection and eternal life that gives us the courage to say with them, “We are ready to die rather than transgress God’s laws, because the King of the universe will raise us up to live again forever.” Truth leads us to the right answers about life’s greatest questions, like the right to life.
On Tuesday we will elect a new president. The false assumption that children in the womb are not persons and do not have the right to life is leading many in our country to the wrong choices, even to electing a president who promises to select Supreme Court justices in favor of abortion. This election will determine the course of our nation for decades to come. There is no issue facing our country today that comes close to the gravity of taking the lives of millions of persons by abortion. May the truth that every child, from the first moment of conception, is a human person with the right to life help us make the right choices. And as long as abortion continues, may we give hope to those who need forgiveness, because it is not a false assumption that God is very merciful to those who return to Him.