Friday, August 28, 2009

Behold! The Bridegroom! Come Out To Meet Him!

In today’s First Reading (1 Thess 4:1-8) Paul continues to instruct the people of Thessalonica how to live if their goal is to please God – which, as he says, they are already doing. He now asks them – urges them – to continue doing what they’re doing, and to heed the advice he has given them by authority of the Lord Jesus.

The same message can be addressed to each of us: It is God’s will that we become saints. If we want to attain that goal, we must refrain from immorality (the Greek can be translated, “to control our own body”, “to find a worthy spouse”, or “to learn to live with one’s spouse”) in a manner that is honorable and holy. We cannot be motivated only by “passionate lust”, like heathens who do not know God. The Lord will punish those who commit such sins. God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life. Anyone who ignores this instruction is not merely rejecting Paul’s advice, but the will of God, who has given his Holy Spirit to us.

Today’s gospel (Matthew 25:1-13), like yesterday’s, is a parable told by Jesus but, just as yesterday’s story of the faithful servant whom the master of the household put in charge of his property is directed to men, this time, Jesus is addressing the women among his disciples.

The kingdom of heaven will be like ten maidens who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.

At midnight the cry rang out: 'Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!'
“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.'
“‘No,' they replied, 'there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.'
"But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
"Later the others also came. 'Sir! Sir!' they said. 'Open the door for us!'
"But he replied, 'I tell you the truth, I don't know you.'
"Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

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Once again, the parable is about staying awake and being watchful, an essential factor for a healthy spiritual life. If I am asleep, I have no awareness of what is happening. If I somnambulate (walk in my sleep), I have no idea where I’m going, or why. If I live on an upper storey in an apartment complex, and there’s a window open, I might fall to the pavement and meet my Maker much sooner than I had anticipated.

Yet, what if my waking is also a kind of walking in my sleep? What if my bouts of anger, or my non-stop cravings (whether motivated by lust or gluttony or greed) are like gears turning all by themselves, with no one in charge? Press one button, and become the target of my impatient and angry outburst. Press another, and watch me cower in fear. Show me an attractive advertisement, and I’ll purchase a product I don’t need. I am not a conscious person responding to life, but a human machine, reacting to stimuli. Or, to put it simply: I’m sound asleep.

What about the wise bridesmaids in today’s parable? Here I agree with Irish Jesuit Father Donagh O’Shea, a frequent source of inspiration, who is due “name credit” this time. These young women are awake, all right, but they’re not the sort you’d consult if you had a problem. There are some “good people” like that.

On the other hand, this is not an allegory, but a parable. An allegory has specific points of application from the beginning to the end of the story; a parable has only one point. This point of this parable is the need to stay alert and awake. It would not be right to apply it in other senses (for instance, to conclude that we shouldn’t help people who are in need, if it’s their own fault.) The moral of this story is found, typically, in the last line: “Stay awake! You don’t know either the day or the hour.”

Saint Augustine did his best to make these bridesmaids attractive. “What does the oil signify?” he asked, “Might it be love …? I will tell you why it is. [Saint Paul says, “I will show you a more excellent way (1 Cor 12:31). It is ‘the way above all others” -[the way of love]. At the same time, Augustine also reminds us, as does Jesus, that among us are some who are prepared to accept the Lord’s greeting when he comes to invite to join him at the wedding feast. None of us knows when that moment will come. It would be prudent – even wise! – to make sure we always have oil in our lamps.

Augustine, you might recall, is the son of Saint Monica, whose memorial we celebrated yesterday. Although he was one of the most intelligent men who ever lived, and had been brought up as a Christian, his pride and his lust darkened his mind so much that he could no longer perceive the Divine Truth.

Through the prayers of his saintly mother, and those of the Bishop of Milan, Saint Ambrose, Augustine finally became convinced that the Way of Jesus was the one true faith. But even then he did not accept baptism, believing that he could never acquire the personal discipline necessary to live a pure life.

One day, though, he learned about two men who had been converted upon reading the life of Saint Antony of the Desert. “What are we doing?” he cried out to his friend Alipius. “Untutored people are taking Heaven by force, while we, with all our learning, are so cowardly that we keep wallowing in the mud of our sins!”

Filled with bitter sorrow, Augustine cried out to God, “Quousque tandem, Domine?” “How long O Lord? Why can this hour not put an end to my sins?” At that moment, he heard a child singing, “Tolle, lege!” (Take up and read.) Augustine picked up a book of the Epistles of Paul, and read the first passage his eyes fell upon. In it, Paul says to put away all impure habits and live in imitation of Christ.

That did it! He was baptized, became a priest, a bishop, a renowned Catholic author. He founded an order of religious priests. On the wall of his room, the following sentence was written in large letters: “Here we do not speak evil of anyone.”

Augustine of Hippo, by the grace of God, mastered strong desires of the flesh, and even greater attraction to heresy. He practiced great poverty, and was generous to the needy. He preached with great fervor until his death. Once he cried out to the Lord, “Too late have I loved Thee!” Yet, by his holy life, he certainly made reparation for the sins he had committed before his conversion. He fought valiantly against the errors of his era, and explained the truths of faith cogently and carefully in his writings. He died in AD 430.

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