Scripture Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17; Matthew 25: 1 –13
The wedding customs being described in the Gospel today may strike us as very different from what we are used to, even strange. The familiar enough point of the parable, though, is “be prepared,” a frequent Gospel theme, hopefully part of our Christian experience, but worth being reminded of on a regular basis, as the Scripture readings of this Sunday do.
Wedding rituals in ancient Palestine demanded that everyone, especially the attendants of the bride, be extra vigilant, prepared for the arrival of the bridegroom when he comes, at an hour of his choosing, to get his bride and bring her to the celebration of their wedding. The festivities would then normally last an entire week.
We in the West are more used to tons of preparation, then a one-day wedding event followed by the bride and groom going off to their honeymoon the same day. Not a lot of fuss and bother in other words, but certainly not a Semitic approach.
At the most dramatic wedding I ever attended the bridegroom was “kidnapped” by his closest friends and detained from the wedding reception for a number of hours. A well intended gag, but it really dampened the spirit of celebration at that wedding, and probably something the parents and the bride have never forgotten and maybe never forgiven!
But back to the wedding customs being described by Jesus, that didn’t include kidnapping the groom. We should be aware, though, that many of the Biblical near Eastern practices are still practiced in some traditional villages. As in the time of Jesus, so now, the bridegroom might choose to collect his bride and attendants at night when lights would be needed, of course. Without sufficient oil for the lamps, some of the attendants could be passed over and miss out on the very important social event of the wedding of friends or family.
Maybe these participants could eventually make their way to the festivities, but all would consider it odd that those supposedly participating and in solidarity with the newlyweds are actually not properly prepared and display a lack of respect for the couple. I understand that this is to be avoided at all costs in Middle Eastern culture.
Jesus compares all these customs regarding lamps and oil to being ready for the coming of God, yes, at every moment in life, but especially at death. If we aren’t ready when the Lord appears, it would be like showing up for a cultural event, such as a play, a movie, a concert or an airplane flight without a reservation or ticket. Getting on board is likely impossible, as is trying to enter a country other than one’s own without a necessary passport or visa. It would be back to where we have come from for those not prepared.
Jesus is trying to teach us in his use of comparisons that there really is consequences for being ill prepared. Jesus is keen to urge never putting off meeting the Lord who wishes to speak here and now. A student has to study before an exam, not as the moment of the exam if she wishes to pass. One can’t become a chef just by walking into a kitchen or a bandleader by stepping onto the podium. So also, our life in Christ has to be a matter of listening now, cooperating with God’s grace in the “sacrament of the present moment,” as some spiritual writers have called it, as if our eternal well-being depended on it, for it does!
Our call in the Church as baptized Christians is to meet the Lord each and every day, and in a special way when we come to die. We are being invited to nothing less than the eternal banquet with its delights beyond our imagining. The question is given and lingers: are we ready? Do we have sufficient oil—that is, God’s grace–to keep the lamps of faith, hope and love kindled within us? Are willing listening to God today, in the silence of our hearts, in the Sacred Scriptures, in the Precious Body and Blood of the Lord offered to us in this Holy Eucharist today?
As we draw nearer to the end of the Liturgical Year, the focus is clearly on vigilance; nepsis, is the Greek term for it, an attitude of preparedness for the voice that daily calls to us: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart” (Psalm 94).
May our joy then be in hearing God’s voice. May we not only hear, but also heed the call to lose self to find our true self in God. May God’s voice and will be our delight, for in following it, we share in the mystery of Christ-in-our-midst, who came not to do his own will, but the will of him who sent him.
The first reading at Mass this Sunday, from the Book of Wisdom, written about one hundred years before Christ, speaks eloquently of what is really worth having—not health, wealth and beauty—but God’s life, which requires a willing spirit for us to possess that life, entailing vigilance and diligence, not sloth or neglect.
Saint Paul speaks of this state as “being with the Lord unceasingly,” in First Thessalonians, the second reading this Sunday. That is a very appealing concept and there could be no better gift, bestowed by God without our deserving or earning it, than “being with the Lord unceasingly.”
As Christ hastens to make himself known to us, may we reply with readied lamps.
Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB