Fr. Raymond Lafontaine, E.V. November 8, 2020
Those of you who have participated in the Scouting movement are no doubt familiar with this motto. Along with “do a good deed each day” and “do your duty to God and the Queen”, it is one of the moral principles on which a good Scout’s life is founded.
But what does it mean to “be prepared”, in this time and place? If we think back to the first weeks of the pandemic, in March and April, some people seemed to think that being prepared meant making sure you had stockpiled enough hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes, flour and yeast, bottled water, and toilet paper to last you through a year of isolation! Others focused their preparation on matters of hygiene: scrupulously following public health instructions regarding hand-washing, physical distancing, and mask-wearing.
As we find ourselves deep in the “second wave” of the pandemic, some of us are recognizing that we need not only to avoid getting the virus, but also take other steps to take care of our physical and psychological health: get a flu shot, watch our diet, make sure we get plenty of exercise, maintain a good work-life balance, find safe ways of connecting with others to sustain us through what may feel like one of the longest winters we have ever known.
Today’s readings are an invitation to consider what it means to “be prepared” from a spiritual perspective. The words the Biblical authors use to describe this are “vigilance” and “wisdom”.
Writing about 150 years before Christ, in a community shaped by the Jewish Law and Prophets, as well as the Greek philosophy of his surroundings, the author of the Book of Wisdom praises the pursuit of wisdom as the highest goal we can seek. Typically personified with a feminine pronoun, “Sophia” is described here as “radiant and unfading, discerned by those who love her, and found by those who seek her.” To find wisdom, in this sense, is to find God: the same God described in Psalm 63 as the One for whom our soul thirsts, who alone can satisfy the deep desires of the human heart.
In today’s Gospel, taken from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus delivers the first of three parables about the “end-times”. The first tells of ten bridesmaids summoned to a wedding-feast, the second is about three servants entrusted with different sums of money by their master, and the last one speaks of a judgment-day in which our response to God will be measured by how we treated those in our midst who are hungry, poor, sick, homeless, or in bondage.
Let’s look at this first parable a little more closely. At first hearing, we may be more shocked by the apparent selfishness of the five so-called wise bridesmaids, who refuse to share their full oil flasks with those whose lamps are going out. But Jesus is not trying to make a point about generosity here. It is an invitation to vigilance. If something important is about to happen, we need to be ready for it, and we can’t expect someone else to bail us out at the last minute, just because we couldn’t be bothered to prepare. It’s a bit like expecting the student who prepared for the exam to let you copy her answers, because you didn’t bother studying.
In the parable, the “oil” symbolizes the wisdom each of us is called to cultivate and develop. Wisdom isn’t something you can simply transfer from one person to another, as you might pour oil from one flask into another. God’s wisdom is something we are invited to constantly desire, seek, and love; in sharpening our thirst and desire for God, we learn that is God who loves us first, seeks us first, desires us first. God’s wisdom is something we grow into gradually: through prayer and discernment, through knowledge and insight, through good deeds and growth in virtue.
This kind of wisdom isn’t something we can just conjure up at the last minute; it is a quality of being that grows over time, through the hard work of forming our conscience well and following it faithfully, through the disciplines of prayer, self-restraint, and good deeds. We prepare for the “end-times” by living each day well; we prepare for the coming of the Bridegroom by cultivating each day the ability and the disposition to recognize him and be ready to welcome him, whatever “the day or the hour.”
These reflections on the “end-times” connect well, it seems to me, with our current experience of the pandemic, as individuals, as a society, and also as a church.
For the early Christians, the return of the Lord in glory was seen as a joyful event, something to be eagerly anticipated. We see Paul here as he comforts the Thessalonians: although the Lord seemed to be delayed in coming, he assures them those who had already died would still share in his glory. Paul lived with the sincere expectation that Jesus would return during his lifetime.
By the time Matthew's Gospel was being written, it was becoming clearer that the second coming of Christ might not be happening right away. And as most of us know that if we don't have a strict deadline to meet – whether it’s a household task, or a work project, or a school term paper – our natural tendency is to slack off, to procrastinate, to get a bit lazy or complacent. This is true in spiritual matters as well: it is so easy to put off till tomorrow what needs to be done today, to hope that someone else will do the work for us. Instead, Jesus says to us: be awake, be aware, be prepared for action!
In his book Awareness, the Indian Jesuit Anthony deMello expresses this call in a powerful way: "Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even if they don’t know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they bring up children in their sleep, they die in their sleep, without ever waking up. They never see the beauty and loveliness of this thing that we call human existence. But waking up can be unpleasant, you know. When you're nice and comfortable in bed, it's irritating to be woken up."
In the parable of the ten bridesmaids, all ten of them fall asleep. It’s hard to stay awake, and be aware, all the time. We all get tired, have trouble staying awake. Many of us have seen our work and sleep patterns disrupted by the pandemic, so we can relate. The difference between them was that when the time came for action, to do what they had to do, to go out and welcome the bridegroom, the wise ones were ready, and the foolish ones weren't. They missed their chance, and there were going to be consequences.
I recently attended a webinar organized by the Divine Renovation movement entitled “How Priestly Ministry is Changing in Pandemic Times.” Over 100 priests, from North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia were in attendance. One thing that really stayed with me was a comment made by Fr. James Mallon, who was here in Montreal to lead our Parish Vitality Conference two years ago. Initially, we treated the pandemic as a “blizzard”: a freak of nature, shutting us down for a short time, but eventually, it would stop snowing. Then, we began to treat it as a “long winter”: something to be endured, but eventually, spring would return and we could get back “to normal.”
Then he used a third metaphor – more disturbing, but more realistic: what if the pandemic is more like a mini “Ice Age” – not an interruption of our routine, but a disruption, an invitation to radically rethink how, in this new and challenging context, we celebrate liturgy, build community, evangelize, reach out to others, bear witness, heal the world? What if this time is an invitation not simply to endurance and perseverance, gritting our teeth and tightening our belts so we can get “through it”, but a call to conversion and transformation, to face the hard truths that a lot of our hard work and sincere efforts were not necessarily bearing much fruit?
So, my brothers and sisters, what qualities do we need to develop, in this time of pandemic, to ensure that we are ready for whatever comes? I suspect Jesus would be telling us it is not so much about stockpiling supplies, or reducing our expenses, as it is developing the virtues that we will need to get through this long night: patience, perseverance, gratefulness, solidarity, creativity, boldness, and joy. These are the things that we cannot afford to run out of!!
When will the pandemic – or even, for that matter, the “red zone” – be over? In the words of Jesus, we know neither “the day nor the hour.” What we can do is to prepare as best we can, trusting that when the time for the wedding feast comes, we will be ready, our lamps lit and well-trimmed, to greet the Bridegroom and be welcomed into the celebration. And aren’t we all looking forward to going to a party again?