28 August 2009

Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

Today's Gospel is one of the "parables of judgment." And in this context it is judgment in the uniguely and interrelated Christian senses of 1) harvest, and therefore 2) something which is not punitive, but merely involves a recognition of and commitment by God to the truth of what is. Evenso, as a story of an awful judgment, it is chilling too, for at the end the bridegroom will not unlock the door for those knocking NOW to be allowed in, but responds instead, "No, I did not know you." We have heard similar stories of course: apostles are sent out to proclaim, "The Kingdom of God is at hand," and are told to shake the dust from their sandals and leave the town, still saying, "The Kingdom of God is at hand." What was a tremendous opportunity becomes an awful judgment and moment of failure for those addressed by them. Similarly then, in today's parable what is meant to be the wedding feast becomes a moment of rejection, exclusion, and terrible judgment for some even while it is one of great rejoicing for others.

Where is it the foolish virgins fail in this parable? What is it they cease doing, for instance, which causes them to come under such a chilling judgment? At first it looks like they are guilty merely of failing to be prudent; they have lamps with insufficient supplies of oil to refill them should the bridegroom be delayed. But one might also ask "what kind of wedding is held at midnight" or "why should virgins be prepared for ANY eventuality, no matter how remote?" No, simple prudence is not their failing eventhough the wise virgins were MORE prudent than the foolish ones. Next it looks like perhaps they are guilty of falling asleep while the wise ones stay awake, but no, ALL the virgins, wise and foolish, fall asleep, so that is not the failing either. Instead, as far as I can tell, the foolish virgins really fail to wait for the Lord and the wise virgins continue to wait for him no matter the time or season. While it is unclear what the foolish virgins have begun to do instead, it is clear to me that they fail to wait for him.

If I am correct about this it opens to way to understanding "waiting" -- and particularly waiting for the Lord -- as something tremendously active and demanding, not passive or lacking in challenge. I suspect it is also something most of us are not very good at, especially in terms of the coming of the Lord! So what does waiting mean and involve? According to today's parable waiting involves the orientation of our whole selves towards a reality which is still to be fulfilled in some way. It means the ordering of our lives in terms of promise, not merely of possibility, and it means the constant reordering of our lives accordingly as time goes on. Waiting involves the acceptance of both presence and absence, reality and unreality, already and not yet, and the subordination of our lives to the dynamics these poles point to or define.

For those of us living in California we understand this kind of waiting because we live in earthquake country. At our parish school for instance we have supplies for all the students, et al, and these are stored away for the time when they WILL be needed. This is not merely a possibility, but an eventuality. Further, it is not enough to simply lay the supplies by and forget about them. They must be changed periodically, updated, modified, and so forth so that they reflect genuine preparedness. Families often do the same thing in their own homes --- and of course, some simply allow their supplies to expire or never get around to taking care of the need for such things at all. Real waiting is an active process of attentiveness and orientation. Filling our lamps, bringing extra flasks of oil, trimming the wicks, and all these actions symbolize the ongoing and ever-new ordering of our lives to the coming of the Lord.

Unfortunately, I suspect that most people's spiritual lives (and I include myself here!) are similar to either those foolish Californians who never set aside or fail to update necessary supplies for the eventuality of the "Big One", or to those foolish virgins who were unprepared to enter into the wedding feast with their bridegroom when he arrived. We may be baptized, confirmed, etc and consider that "that is enough." We may try to get by on prayer lives that were sufficient for us 20 years ago, but no longer. We may attend Mass once a week, and lull ourselves into believing that we have really ordered our lives in a way which is truly prepared for "the coming of the Lord." Similarly we may say to ourselves, "I prayed the night before last; I can skip it tonight!" -- or something like this with regard to quiet prayer, journaling, or other spiritual practices until without even realizing it we have failed to pray much at all for a week or two (or more)! And we may be comfortable letting things slide in this way --- as some are wont to do in their own marriages or other "significant" relationships, for instance! Until, that is, we find ourselves being told (with its exaggerated semitic emphasis), "I never knew you!" and have to recognize that indeed, yesterday's prayer prepared us for yesterday and was a response to yesterday's love. Yesterday's relationship with Jesus prepared us for yesterday's coming of the Lord. What is required is the active and complete ordering of our lives TODAY in a way which allows us to really say, "I am waiting for the Lord!" and allows Jesus to say, "Yes, you are my bride; I know you well. Welcome!"

Some commentators have remarked about the apparent "unChristian" (read selfish and even cruel) attitude of those virgins labelled "wise" in today's Gospel. Afterall, shouldn't they have lent the oil to those without? How silly (and even dangerous!) to expect the others to travel abroad to buy oil from merchants at midnight, especially just when the bridegroom is arriving! But the wisdom at work here is simple. Some things can only be done by us. No one can do them for us. Allowing the establishment and growth of a relationship with Christ is one of those things. Christ will always take the initiative, the Holy Spirit will always empower our assent to such a relationship, but no one can take on this responsibility for us. Only we ourselves through and in the grace of God can truly "wait on the Lord" as today's parable calls upon us to do. And only we can embrace a relationship which is vital and expectant, or succumb to one which stagnates and fails in hope and genuine love. Only we can become the human beings whose lives are centered on Christ today and provide a welcome place for him in this world; no one can do this for us.

May we each truly learn to wait on the Lord as the wisest of virgins, day by day and moment by moment! Only then will God's judgment be the harvesting of rich and abundant fruit rather than the rejection of something that withered on the vine days, weeks, months, or even years ago.