Sunday 32A

It’s funny when we come across the source of an often cited quotation. We say to ourselves, ‘oh, so that’s where it comes from!’ The saying ‘you do not know the day or the hour’ is one such saying, and comes from the parable of the wise and foolish virgins today.

A number of years ago there was a terrible tragedy that killed a number of high profile Manchester United players – it is called the Munich Air Disaster, which took place in 6 Feb 1958, and is forever etched in the consciousness and lore of that great football club. A few of the players were not confident fliers, particularly Liam Whelan, who was heard to say "This may be death, but I'm ready" shortly before take-off. It is sobering that he did die that night.

Recently I have presided at, or heard about quite a significant number of, funerals of young people in their 40s. It seems that they are too young to die by our reckoning. All their plans and dreams come to a sudden end, through illness or a tragic accident, and we and their loved ones are left asking: ’Why? Why now? Why not later? Or ‘we weren’t ready!’’ ‘They had so much to offer and to accomplish. Why now, Lord? It seems so unfair.’

This happens to us time and again and one sad funeral after another wears us down. We go on our way tranquilly and then ‘wallop’, we are stunned in the face of untimely death. This month of November we are all too aware of all loved ones gone before us.

Which brings us back to the parable. This parable of the 5 wise and 5 foolish virgins, is, in fact, among the last of Jesus and when we look at the context of the Gospel Jesus is preaching towards the end of His own life. Soon He will face what He Himself describes as ‘the hour’. It was for this hour I came into this world’. Up to this point, the gospel writers relate: ‘his hour had not come yet’, all the way back to Cana when He said to His Mother, ‘My hour has not yet come.’

Now His hour has come and He will say to His Father, ‘Father, what will I say, save me from this hour?’ When we take a look at the chapter this parable comes from we see too that there are other similar parables about watchfulness and a divine return at an un-appointed time.

We are all frightened by the shortness of life and our own mortality. We see that much of the glamour, fame, and celebrity around us and in the media is really so much empty show, here today and gone tomorrow. In fact we are reminded anew of the most fundamental important things to us - faith, family, friends, and our health. When we are shaken by death we often see them with a fresh sense of gratitude that we can get up in the morning despite all our whinges at the demands and inconveniences that are made of us. Our worries are short-lived but also placed in a new context of gratitude for what we do have here and now.

The maidens, virgins or young girls in the parable are chosen with a particular duty and joyful task to accompany the bridegroom as He comes to claim His Bride and take up residence with her, which is marked by a midnight feast, in the curious Israelite custom of the time.

There is much symbolism of course. The parable highlights virginity which in turn points to a certain disposition – a cleanliness or detachment from sin and worldly things. All ten have this external quality as it were. They differ however in one crucial respect, which reminds us that the exterior life must be accompanied by an interior watchfulness and preparation. The oil in the lamp is the fuel needed to provide the light in the darkness, to guide the way, which the foolish virgins lack. What is this oil? Wisdom and virtue, the First Reading tells us. This means discernment of what the most important things in life are, as well as a consciousness of why we are here, in this time and space in 2011, and what are our duties to God and neighbour. The oil in fact points to the light we are called to be to others, and pointing to Christ the Light - as well of course being attuned to the source of all Light, Christ, the Light of the world, ourselves. We cannot give what we do not possess ourselves. Jesus said on the Sermon on the Mount. ‘You are the light of the world; no one places a lamp under a bed or a bushel, but where it will be seen. You must let your light (your deeds) be seen, so that others may give praise to your Father in heaven.’

When we see the ‘lock-out’ of the foolish ones, by contrast, it is not for us to speculate, though, how many are excluded as in the other parables of Jesus where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, and what is meant when ‘many will try to enter’ and will fail. As the other parables we have seen tell us, we need a proper wedding garment, we need to do the Father’s will, we must enter by the narrow gate, and we must be humble.

The Lord is coming for each of us, each in turn; it is only a matter of when. We do not know the day or the hour.

MAy Our Lady pray for us 'now and at the hour of our death.'

Are we ready, with our lamps lit? As we say in the Mass - ‘we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our saviour, Jesus Christ.’

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