by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“The reign of God can be likened to ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to welcome the groom. Five of them were foolish, the other five were sensible. The foolish ones in taking their lamps brought no extra oil with them but the sensible ones took flasks of oil as well as their lamps. The groom was late in coming, so they all began to nod, then fall asleep. At midnight, someone shouted: ‘The groom’s here! Come and welcome him!’ …So, stay awake. You have no idea when he might arrive.” Matthew 25, 1-13
Today’s gospel parable of the ten bridesmaids is a difficult one, especially for those of us who grew up believing that the Christian life was all about building up a bank-account of grace, merit or brownie points as our entry ticket into heaven. That kind of thinking could lead us to interpret the lamp oil in the parable as something that could be shared with others. Yet again, the key to understanding this gospel-reading is context. This parable of the bridesmaids appears only in Matthew’s Gospel, and is based on the Palestinian custom of the bridegroom visiting his bride’s home on their wedding day to conclude with his intended father-in-law the agreement to marry his daughter. That cleared the way for the bridegroom to take his wife to their new home. The bridesmaids would meet them on their arrival and lead them into the wedding feast.
While the parable is essentially about being prepared, there are some aspects of it that are puzzling, simply because they don’t seem to sit comfortably with Jesus’ constant call to share what we have with those in need. So, I used to find myself asking why the wise bridesmaids refused to share their oil with those who didn’t come prepared, and why the bridegroom refused the admit the latecomers to the party. Living the Gospel is not about storing up merit. It’s much more about practicing a skill or a way of living. It’s a bit like learning to play the piano, and practicing until it becomes second nature. Whether we’re pole-vaulters, tennis players, opera singers or pianists, we cannot transfer our skills at those things to anyone who requests them. So, for the foolish bridesmaids to ask the sensible ones to share their oil of experience is as senseless as saying: “Please give us a dose of your skill.” We all have to learn how to live the law of love of God and neighbour, the call of Jesus to reach out to the needy, the invitation to live in tune with the beatitudes. No amount of doing that will touch the loves of those intent on sitting on the sidelines doing nothing.
As for the bridegroom’s refusal to allow entry to the foolish bridesmaids, it’s a bit like the exclusion of the man who turned up dressed in the wrong clothes for the wedding feast for the king’s son. He just didn’t fit in. It’s a bit like a cryptic-crossword practitioner wanting admittance to a workshop for short-story writers.
The message in all this for us is that living in tune with Jesus and his Gospel is learned over a life-time of practice. If we don’t keep working at it, we can slip into acting irresponsibly, being selfish, lacking in generosity and compassion, forgetting the need to put the common good ahead of our own wants and desires. We can act as though we have an endless supply of resilience and energy needed to bring back into our lives the light of the Gospel. That’s a myth, because our lives are limited.
Today’s first reading from Wisdom complements nicely the message of the gospel parable. Wisdom is really allowing ourselves to be in touch with God’s Spirit alive and active within us. But we know we have the capacity to block out the promptings of God’s Spirit felt within and also evident in what Vatican II described as “the signs of our times”. God’s Spirit of wisdom nudges us to live with integrity, to respond with openness to the events of our lives and to interpret the changes in society and the world around us in the light of the Gospel.
Accessible on the world-wide-web is a multifaith website called Spirituality & Practice. It offers a great variety of helpful spiritual practices, online courses and book reviews. A few years ago, the site offered a review of an inspirational book by Janet Wehr, entitled Peaceful Passages: A Hospice Nurse’s Stories of Dying Well. The review quoted the following, which resonates appropriately with the message of today’s gospel parable:
“Although I struggle, like every other human being, with the daily challenges of overwork, impatience, fear, anger, and disappointment, I know that it is always my choice instead to choose happiness, forgiveness, compassion, and joy, to live each day as if it were my last, and to be grateful for every day that I have.
Working with the dying has brought light into my own life, illuminating the shadowy corners of negativity that I alone have the choice to relinquish or to transform to something more positive. Even though the work I do is with the dying, it has also been work within myself, and I thank God every day for both of those opportunities.
So, in the end, what is it that the dying teach others around them? They teach how to love and how to allow ourselves to be loved; how to forgive and how to ask for forgiveness; how to find our joy and how to spread that joy around to others. They also teach us how to spend valuable time connecting our earthly self with our spiritual self so that these two separate but vital aspects of our being aren’t strangers when they meet as the time of our own death draws near.
And so, it is perhaps meant to be that, with every person’s dying, another person is learning to live well.
Although I can’t know for certain, I suspect from what I have witnessed that, possibly, the very best part of living might actually be the dying.”
The events of each day during this time of uncertainty as Covid 19 frustrates and threatens us, remind us that our lives are limited and so, too, are opportunities for us to practice the Gospel call to live with mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance and hospitality to everyone we encounter. For all of us, those opportunities are decreasing as each day goes by.