The parable in the Gospel for today tells us about the ten virgins who were keeping vigil for the coming of the bridegroom. As part of a lengthy wedding ceremony, it was customary for the groom to go to the house of the bride in order to fetch her and transfer her into his own home. The transition from the house of the bride to that of the groom was integral to the wedding celebration. The ten virgins were waiting for the return of the groom, presumably bringing his bride along with him, as part of the welcoming party. As the parable goes, five were wise while the rest were foolish. The latter did not carry with them extra oil for their lamps, and it turned out that the groom came later than expected.
As with any parable, this story makes a single important point. The other elements of the story should not distract us from the core theme. Here Jesus focuses on the invitation to readiness.
In the context of the Readings, readiness pertains to our preparation for our eventual end, either in death or at the Parousia (read: the Second Coming). The Readings invite us to ask a question of fundamental importance. When it is time to give an account before God of the choices that we have made, will He find us ready?
The matter of readiness for the inevitable, it seems, does not preoccupy us until human fragility slaps us in the face. We often get lost in the daily grind of life, pouring our attention and energy on the small details of every day. Important details, yes, but smaller, nevertheless, against the backdrop of eternity. Then sickness or old age forces us to slow down, or someone we know – like Isabel Granada – passes on to the next life unexpectedly. We realize that we are indeed just passers-by in a world whose fleeting concerns often make us forget to keep our lamps burning.
What does it take to be ready? Essentially, readiness means living our life in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord. Toward the end of the Gospel According to Matthew, this way of life is spelled out more clearly – feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison. In other words, being ready consists in loving others as concretely as possible, inspired by no less than our own experience of God’s immense kindness.
We know this of course, but our knowledge easily gets drowned out by our daily concerns. Our business distracts us, our work puts unending pressure on us, the demands of family and relationships drain out the oil in our lamps. How does one sustain the intensity of awareness which this type of readiness requires?
The foregoing question brings to mind the relevance of tangible religious symbols. We need things that we can touch and see, songs that we can hear, persons that we can encounter, poetry that we can relish, rituals that we can repeat, so that we are able to stay awake, our lamps burning, and ready to meet the Lord when He finally comes. Having these religious symbols and keeping them within reach help translate the knowledge of our inevitable end into practical wisdom.
This I think is part of the function of our churches. We need beautiful places of worship partly because they evoke in us a sense of awe and mystery. They remind us of the transcendent. They make us remember the destiny that ultimately awaits us. In a similar way, we need crosses in our homes, rosary beads in our pockets, candles on our altars. They call us back to the Parable of the Ten Virgins and caution us from becoming like the foolish ones.
Holy persons affect us in a deeper way. There is a priest who by his holiness invariably bothers me in my own spiritual complacency. The simplicity of his life makes me feel embarrassed about the superficiality of my tastes and preferences. Similarly, there should be someone in your life who makes you desire to become a better person. Visit her/him often, seek her/his counsel and company regularly. These saintly individuals are powerful symbols, instruments of the Spirit to help us sustain our readiness for the eventual coming of the Bridegroom.