Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thes 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13]

During a brisk walk outside on a beautiful Fall day, you notice heavy black smoke rolling off the roof of Trappist Caskets. A feeling of panic sweeps over you, but when you begin running for help you can only move in slow motion, as if caught in a net. Suddenly a fire truck with flashing red lights and a loud siren comes roaring down Monastery Road, but instead of turning right to Trappist Caskets, it turns left toward the monastery. In desperation you wave and point back to the factory, but now there’s no smoke in that direction. Rather, it’s coming from the front of the Guest House. In a flash you practically fly to the parking lot. There, to your bewilderment, you see the fire truck parked next to a smoking barbeque grill. The firemen, along with Abbot Brendan, Br. Placid, Father Alberic and Br. Joseph, are sitting at picnic tables enjoying a cookout. Greatly relieved, you sit down to join the unexpected picnic, and just before you bite into a juicy hamburger seasoned with onions and pickles you wake up. It was only an dream, but there’s a lesson to be learned. Perhaps you’re working too hard. Maybe you need relax and have a picnic to refresh body and soul.

The parables of Jesus are like dreams that combine familiar things in odd, sometimes unreal ways, to reveal deeper mysteries. Like the king who prepares a wedding banquet for his son and has everything ready. The invited guests refuse to come. It’s unbelievable! Who would ever pass up the wedding of a king’s son? They even murder the messengers! The king, in a rage, goes to war and destroys their city. That takes a lot of time, yet, the juicy food prepared on the banquet table is still hot and fresh, ready for the poor among his people whom the king invites to his son’s banquet.

In another parable laborers receive the same daily wage for vastly different hours of work. The landowner never seems to give a realistic thought about what will happen tomorrow when he needs to hire these same people again. Who’s going to begin working at the first hour when they can come at the eleventh hour and receive the same pay? It’s unreal. The parables of Jesus take what is familiar in our daily lives and change it in surprising ways to teach us that God never gives less than what he promises, but always much more.

If today’s parable of ten bridesmaids was only about an earthly wedding feast, we could challenge the Storyteller’s facts. Wouldn’t five lamps be enough to light the way for all ten bridesmaids? Were the five wise maidens being selfish for refusing to share their oil? Was it realistic to expect a merchant to be open after midnight? How could the bridegroom who came late reject the foolish ones for also coming late? His delay in coming would have been a terrible insult to the bride and her family.

But this parable is about a greater reality, the mystery of the delay of our divine Bridegroom and what it means for us. The Storyteller says, “Five are wise and five are foolish.” They look alike. They’re all waiting for the Bridegroom. And they all become drowsy, falling asleep at the long delay. But when he approaches the foolish realize they have no oil to light their lamps. They begin to panic. Their outer darkness reveals an inner darkness. They have no oil, the biblical symbol for the Spirit of God. The light of divine wisdom is not in them. They are fools. For a while they may appear on the outside to be Christians but interiorly they are not, they are empty vessels. They seem to have the same commitment and vigilance as the wise but their empty lamps point to neglect of what truly matters in life. They have not learned the wisdom of obedience to God’s will as people of God. The bridegroom’s delay is intended to give them time to repent, but they do not take advantage of the delay to prepare themselves for his coming.

The parable goes on to reveal that a time is coming for separation, the wise from the foolish, the wheat from the weeds, the sheep from the goats, houses built on rock from houses built on sand. When the Bridegroom approaches, the foolish stumble off into the blackness of midnight, without any light to guide them. The night that swallows them is a sign of their interior life. The foolish are lost, because somewhere along the way, at critical moments in their lives, they refused to repent. They chose not to be ready. A time is coming when the door will be shut, when the Bridegroom will say, “I do not know you.” The parable teaches that the Bridegroom’s delay is for our advantage, we still have time to do now what will profit us for all eternity.

The brightly lit wedding feast is ready, but where is the bride in this parable. She is never mentioned. Why is that? Because this is not an earthly wedding. It is a story about our wedding with God. The maidens are virgins, young girls of marriageable age. They are the bride, the Church. It is our wedding with God that the Storyteller is narrating. The feast is ready, the food is juicy and hot. The Bridegroom has come. The door has been closed. He takes you by the hand and leads you to the banquet table. Just as you are about to taste the first delights of this divine wedding feast, the parable tells us, “Wake up! Are you ready? Are you wise or foolish?”

Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 1Kgs. 17: 10-16; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44]

Whether we call the present time in which we live a culture of relativism or post-modernity or some other name, it seems obvious that we a living in a time characterized by a high degree of change and instability, and widespread disagreement about how we should respond to it. There is nothing in the situation that leads me to think that this will change significantly in the immediate future. To the extent that my expectation is true, it leaves us with the challenge of how to live our lives in a meaningful and responsible way. Two approaches that I think can be eliminated at the outset are a naive optimism that things will just get better automatically, and, on the other hand a morbid pessimism that has given up all hope for any improvement. God created us to be free and responsible men and women. Even though sin destroyed our freedom, Jesus Christ has regained for us the ability to live freely and responsibly. Because of this we are accountable for how we go about our daily lives; the difficulties that our current cultural crisis present us not withstanding. Because we are called to be followers of Christ, we are stewards for the well being of our world, including the social and cultural well being of our world.

Making a constructive contribution to our situation may seem a daunting task, well beyond our limited talents and abilities. Left to ourselves it would be; but at the heart of the good news is the message that we have not been left to ourselves. Jesus Christ intercedes for us at the right hand of the Father. True to his promise he has not left us orphans, but he has poured out his Spirit into our hearts to guide and support us. It is Jesus Christ who has called us to be his disciples and it is Jesus Christ who gives us a share in his mission for the salvation of the world; including our world that seems so fragmented and for many people a world without purpose. It is the same Jesus Christ who said that the widow’s two coins worth a few cents were a greater contribution to the temple than the larger amounts that all the others contributed. God consistently turns our value systems upside down.

Elijah made a small request to the widow of Zarephath; a cup of water and a small piece of bread. Yet, answering it would have deprived her and her son of all they had to live on. Because she trusted in God’s promise to her through Elijah, her needs were met well into the future. When we think about anything we might do to contribute to a better world, we might easily conclude that it would make no difference and only make life more difficult for ourselves. But it is God who gives success to our efforts in his time and according to his plan. He only asks that we offer what little we have with faith and hope in his ability to multiply it and to bring it to fruition.

Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: 1Kgs. 17: 10-16; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44]

One of the more noticeable consequences of the increasing secularization of western society is the lessening of visible signs that support a religious attitude. Architecturally, churches are receding into the background as malls and other commercial and entertainment centers increasingly dominate the urban landscape. Traditional religious feasts, most noticeably Christmas, are losing their religious significance as commercial interests take over. A number of traditional religious practices and devotions have either fallen into disuse or are celebrated in a more simplified manner than in former years. The reason often given for the simplification of our liturgies and devotions is that the proliferation of religious gestures and symbols, rather than supporting a religious attitude was beginning to interfere with one. On the other hand, a number of people are saying that they are being deprived of the support they need to maintain a devotional attitude and remembrance of God. To some extent I am sympathetic with both positions.

Even with the contemporary tendency toward a more homogeneous dress code and more informal ways of addressing each other, I think there is still a place for symbols and symbolic behavior that recognize the various roles we fulfill in our communities. With this morning’s gospel in mind, I say that with more than a little self-consciousness. I am wearing a long robe. People call me “Father“. I have the front seat in our assembly this morning. Even so, I don’t think Jesus was primarily concerned with styles of dress. Using titles of address is not wrong in itself and in some situations they can be helpful. I don’t think it would add to the devotion of our Eucharist this morning if we all just milled around and there were no designated roles for who was supposed to do what when. However, we can too easily turn these social conventions from aids for going about our affairs in an orderly manner into symbols of status and prestige, and use them to designate some people as more important than others. As the contrast between the scribes and the widow who put two small coins into the treasury makes clear, Jesus put primary importance on the attitudes that underlie our behavior.

The scribes took social conventions, which are neutral in themselves and used them to assert their self-importance. The widow who in the eyes of her society had no importance to assert contributed what she had. Jesus made a similar comment in regard to the woman who anointed him with oil, when he said to his indignant disciples: Why give her trouble? She has done what she could. This morning’s gospel asks us where we stand: With the scribes, who used religious symbols as a means to status and prestige, or with the widow, who with a generous heart gave what she had?

Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time

[Scripture Readings: Wis 6:12-16; l Thes 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13]

Fr. David The recent hurricanes, especially Katrina, put a dent in the image of our country’s leadership—they didn’t seem prepared to handle the aftermath of the storms. They knew they were coming, but were late in getting adequate help to the victims of the storm. The president hopes to flatten out some of those dents by showing us that he will be prepared to meet the threat of the avian flu, and is ready to spend over seven billion dollars to insure our national safety.

Being prepared is something we expect from ourselves, as well as our leadership. We highly value planning and programming in our modern society. Better to be proactive, than reactive. Enough investigation and research will provide all the knowledge you need to cope with any emergency. We get a deep satisfaction from being able to control life, from our personal management skills.

Our myths about being able to control life even lead us into serious denial about the extent to which reality has the chronic capacity to surprise us. We knew the hurricanes were coming, and yet we were unprepared. We’d been through hurricanes before—but “we never saw one like this before.” Past experience and comfortable clichés can dull and blind us, lull us to sleep, so that unforeseen contingencies throw us into confusion.

White Noise by Sarah KreppWe thought we knew what the implications of a job were, what was going on inside a person. We thought we knew, but then were surprised. What we knew may have been valid enough, but it wasn’t the experience. The experience brought us face to face with reality. We now REALIZED what it meant. We had known about it, but we hadn’t felt it. The experience far exceeded our expectations and categories. Real life was going on “outside the boxes” we had prepared.

More persistent than the “white noise” or background sound that envelops us is the silent planning that hums away under the surface of our consciousness. We keep planning and projecting our lives into the future. We have plans for the rest of the morning, the rest of the day, the rest of the week. The better the plans, the more in control we will be. We plan so that we will have “enough”—enough time, enough money, enough space, enough help. We get nervous or think it is “morbid” to focus on the utter presumption of it all. But it is utterly presumptuous. There is no certainty that we will walk out of this church, much less make it to the end of the week. There is no need or reason that it must be so. We depend on grace and graciousness that life is freely given us. As much as reality is grasped by planning and control, it dissolves into playful absurdity and arbitrary chaos. Coextensive and contemporaneous with our organized world is this world that erupts with unplanned ferocity. We live in a world of organization and control , but also of unforeseeable contingency and surprise. Wedding these two worlds in our experience is wisdom.

It is the practical deployment of this wisdom which is at stake in our parable this morning. We are initially told which five are wise, and which five are foolish. This is more than a story about “when bad things happen to dumb people.” It is more than just the logical consequence of what happens when you are foolish and don’t bring enough oil. The point and poignancy of this parable rises at that point of realization: “Our lamps are going out.” The world of chaos, loss, contingency comes rushing into their awareness. What had seemed to be enough was in fact not enough. Their lamps were going out. It is not hard to hear the panic and distress. It is not hard to feel and resonate with a similar feeling of not having enough, of realizing that what had seemed to be important and central was “not enough”, not really important or central. That moment of growing emptiness and darkness when the world seems to collapse into a black hole. “I’ve had it all wrong.” “I have been profoundly mistaken.” “Our lamps are going out.

The foolish virgins panic and go out of themselvesNow we begin to see the foolishness unfold. What did they do? What should they have done? That is the question of the parable. One way of interpreting it is to suggest that their fear and panic drove them outside themselves. They tried to get what was missing from those who could not give it to them. The advice they took (bad advice from wise virgins—maybe some irony here) led them even further away to the merchants so that they were not present when the bridegroom appeared.

Not being present, not there to be included in the whole group that went in—this seems to be the real foolishness that barred them from entry into the wedding feast. Perhaps it would have meant counting on the light from the five wise virgins. Perhaps it would have meant confessing the imprudence of not having enough oil and trusting in the grace and graciousness of the host. Perhaps it would have meant realizing that the preparations and plans were only means to serve the great event of the wedding of divine and human which exceeded all the plans to have enough. And that in the presence of the Lord of abundance even what little there was would have been enough.

When the lamps go out, it means that the inner light, desire and passion no longer burn in the scintilla animae—the spark of the soul. This is the experience we have of our own selves, reflecting the glory of God. This is me. It is enough. My experience is enough. It is the wedding of past and future in memory and hope, the wedding of my uniqueness with an unbounded common humanity. It is an irreplaceable readiness within, the perception of wisdom by those who love her, the eagerness and versatility and spontaneity of those who are ready to welcome the surprising entry of God into their lives. Marshall McLuhan once said that “the price of eternal vigilance is indifference.” Being awake means not fixating on any one plan or method. It means the wisdom to understand that means are only means, and not the goal itself. To be confined to a life of planning and management could send us off outside our real selves until we finally hear that the door is closed—there is no more room, no more space, no more time. And to hear the awful words from our creator: “I do not know you.” You are not the person I created you to be.