ISAIAH 42:1-4,6-7. ACTS 10:34-38 MARK 1:7-13
I want to focus my reflection this week on one line from the Gospel. “I have baptized you with water, he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” This is John the Baptist speaking of Jesus. He’s distinguishing what he’s been doing from what Jesus will do.
John’s baptism was a spiritual exercise. He asked people to give up their attachments to the dark things of the world, to redirect their lives and to live in the light of the Lord. His baptism, symbolically washed away past sins so that people might be ready for the new baptism that Jesus would bring. He refers to this as baptism with the Holy Spirit. What is this?
Baptism with the Holy Spirit is a life-altering experience that releases the spiritual gifts that each of us has been given by God. The Holy Spirit, working within and through us, frees us to be the hands of Christ.
Remember how Jesus laid hands on the sick and healing power flowed through him. When we’re baptized with the Holy Spirit we are gifted with special attributes: to really know God in our hearts, to be able to pray from the heart, to recognize God’s presence in the world and in our lives, the ability to give counsel and instruction to others, the ability to heal and to liberate others from the
powers of darkness. These gifts may sound heavy duty and not at all in the realm of possibility for me, but the Holy Spirit can and will work though every one of us.
Most of the time the Spirit’s work is quite subtle. But it demands that we be disposed to it. This can demand a great deal from us because we must stop focusing on ourselves and redirect our energies to others. This is the gift of self. When we succumb to the Spirit, the Spirit will gently touch others through us. That’s when our hands become the hands of Christ.
St. Peter, in his second letter, reminds all of us of our special relationship to God and to one another through the Spirit. “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”
Today, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, let’s invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. Let’s pray for the liberation of our gifts. Let’s commit ourselves to be the hands of Christ. Let’s begin our work in the vineyard of the Lord. Let’s work with the Spirit to manifest the kingdom of God on earth.
ISAIAH 60:1-6 EPHESIANS 3:2-3A, 5-6 MATTHEW 2:1-12
Here we are at the end of the Christmas Season. We’re celebrating the Feast of the Epiphany, sometimes called “Little Christmas.” In fact, this is the day the Orthodox Churches celebrate the birth of Jesus.
The account of the Epiphany is found in Matthew’s Gospel.
Shortly after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, magi “from the East,” most likely Zoroastrian astrologers from Persia, arrived in Jerusalem. Everyone took great interest in their arrival because they came looking for information about a newly born king. As Matthew puts it, “When King Herod heard this, he was greatly troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.”
I can understand why Herod was “greatly troubled.” As he aged he became more and more mentally unhinged. He was a narcissistic personality to begin with, but as he aged, he became increasingly paranoid. He murdered his wife, her two sons, her mother, brother and grandfather. He constructed elaborate fortresses throughout the country that were meant to be places of refuge for him should he ever need to flee Jerusalem. The possibility of a rival king ignited his paranoia.
I wonder, though, why everyone else was “greatly troubled.” The religious leaders, the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes would have been put off by these star-gazing pagans announcing the birth of a Jewish king. If their prediction were true, he could threaten their grip on the people. But I wonder about the other people in Jerusalem – the common people. How were they “greatly troubled?” The phrase “greatly troubled” is used several times in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Zachariah, Mary and the shepherds are said to be “greatly troubled” when they’re greeted by the an
gel Gabriel. The angel’s response to each of them was exactly the same, “Do not be afraid.” This tells us a great deal. The angel is warning them that fear will block their hearts and minds from receiving his message of joy and hope.
Herod and the religious leaders remained troubled because they gave into their fear, a fear that they might lose their power. The ordinary people had no power to lose. The appearance of these exotic magi with their message of a newborn king would have immediately caught their attention. These people had no love for Herod or the religious leaders. They were suffering under Rome’s oppressive occupation and an ultraconservative religious regime. Could this star that guided the magi really be announcing the birth of a messianic leader and the beginning of a new time? They would certainly have remembered the prophecy about this. “I see him, though not now; I behold him, though not near. A star shall advance from Jacob and a staff shall rise from Israel.” (Numbers 24:17) The common people weren’t afraid. The magi’s message filled them with hope.
It’s so interesting that we can read these same scriptures every year, and every year find a new level of meaning in them. While we’re read the Epiphany story today, our entire nation is “greatly distressed.” We’ve suffered through so much this year. We’re afraid of the strife and political upheaval we’re experiencing. We’re afraid of the pandemic that threatens our lives and the lives of people we love. We’re afraid for our jobs and our livelihoods. We need to take the angel’s message to heart, “Do not be afraid.”
In your heart, let go of the things you’re afraid to lose. Raise your eyes. Gaze at the star. Allow yourself to feel its joy of hope. It’s the star that guided the magi to the King. It’s the star that will lead us to his new world.
SIRACH 3:2-7 COLOSSIANS 3:12-21 LUKE 2:22-40
About 30 days after Jesus’ birth Mary and Joseph traveled to Jerusalem to perform two religious rituals, the redemption of the firstborn and the purification of the mother. It was common belief that every firstborn male belonged to God. This may be a remnant from the ancient days when the first born was sacrificed to the gods. This was abhorrent to the Jewish psyche, and so it evolved the pagan practice into a simple ritual of offering a “ransom” for the child by giving a small donation to the priests.
The purification of the mother ended the period of time after the birth of a child when a woman was considered ritually unclean – forty days for a boy and eighty days for a girl. A sheep was generally sacrificed for her purification. However, the poor could offer two turtle doves or two pigeons. This was Mary’s offering.
By noting these rituals Luke, who was writing to people who weren’t Jewish, was making it clear to his readers that Jesus was totally integrated into Jewish life and culture. He had already noted that Jesus was a descendent of King David. Simultaneously, Luke was stressing that, with the birth of Jesus, Israel was on the brink of a new time – the Messianic time. He illustrated this by introducing five characters into his infancy narrative.
The first three were Zachariah, his wife Elizabeth and their son, John. Zachariah represented the old time. He was a priest of the old covenant. His wife, a symbol of Israel, was barren as Israel seemed to be. However, their miracle baby, John, was to be the first sign of new life for Israel. He would be Israel’s last prophet. He would announce the coming of the new time and prepare the people to welcome it.
The scene we read today introduces Simeon and Anna. They both recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Simeon was a good and righteous man who prayed that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Messiah. As he took Jesus into his arms he broke into a prayer declaring him “a light of revelation for the Gentiles and the glory of your people, Israel.” The new time had certainly arrived. But it would be a time of challenge, too. Simeon turned to Mary and continued his prophecy. “This child is destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
Luke then introduced Anna into the scene, an eighty-four-year-old prophetess. She was the symbol of Israel’s long and dedicated fidelity to God’s covenant. “She never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.” She announced the arrival of the new time to “all who were awaiting the redemption of Israel.”
What’s Luke trying to say to us in this passage? He’s reflecting on the birth of the new Israel. This has nothing to do with a country. Israel is a people – God’s people – God’s chosen people. Simeon and Anna are the old Israel – loyal and faithful but tired. There was a time when the prophets spoke God’s word to them. But it had been four hundred years since God had spoken through a prophet. John the Baptist would break that silence. His words would usher in the new time.
Everything we’ve read from Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus gives definition to the new time. It’s shocking, and maybe even disturbing, because it’s not what anyone of us would have expected. The Messiah was to be a king and a savior, but in our earthly assessment he was powerless. He wasn’t like the kings we’ve known or the military figures who brought peace by conquering nations. He was poor. He was homeless. His bed was a feeding trough. The message he preached was love.
Luke is telling us that in the new time we can no longer trust the things we’ve always trusted. The structures of power and control that we’ve relied upon for so long to maintain order and promote a spotty prosperity are obsolete. The new time is to be marked by the power
of selfless love. It will be modeled by a Messiah king who will pour out his life for others. He will even become the bread of life for anyone who hungers for life in the new time.
We call this Sunday Family Sunday. But it’s not so much about a mother and a father and the children. It’s about the new family in the new time. But if self-giving is the hallmark of the new time, what does the family look like? In the new time the family isn’t only a small unit, it’s also global, its people caring for each other and pouring out their lives in love for one another.
Since the birth of Jesus, we’ve been struggling to let the new time reign, but we’ve been hanging on to the old time, its values and its methods. Every Christmas Season the scriptures remind us to let go! To begin to envision the new time. To take your first steps into that new time. I’ll conclude my reflection now. I encourage you to contemplate these scriptures taken from our Advent and Christmas scriptures. As you do so, open you heart to the new time.
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“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again. O house of Jacob, come, walk in the light of the Lord!” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“Let us, then, throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” (1st Sunday of Advent)
“May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify God, the Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (2 nd Sunday of Advent)
“Repent! For the kingdom of God is at hand!” (2nd Sunday of Advent)
“Be patient, my brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord.” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…” (3 rd Sunday of Advent)
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, upon those who dwell in the land of gloom a light has shone.” (Midnight Mass)
“In times past, God spoke to us in partial and various ways through the prophets; in these last days he has spoken to us through the Son…” (Christmas Day)
2 SAMUEL 7:1-5, 8B-12, 14A, 16 ROMANS 16:25-27 LUKE 1:26-38
We generally think of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary as the one and only annunciation reported in the Gospels. However, there are three annunciations in the Gospel of Luke. Each one is unique and important for our reflection.
The first annunciation was to a priest, Zachariah. While he was in the temple taking his turn to offer incense in the sanctuary, Gabriel appeared to him. He was told not to be afraid.
Even though he was an old man and his wife, Elizabeth, barren, he was promised a son. Their son, John, filled with the Holy Spirit, would be the last prophet of Israel and would prepare the people for the coming of the redeemer.
The second annunciation was to Mary. She, too, was counselled not to be afraid. Though a virgin, Gabriel told her that she was chosen to have a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. His name was to be Jesus which means savior. He would be a great king, and his kingdom would last forever.
The third annunciation was to shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth. Gabriel, speaking from the divine glory, warned them not to be afraid and directed them to the new-born king. They found him
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
These three announcements cover all of salvation history. Zachariah and Elizabeth represent Israel, old and barren, yet ever faithful. Mary, young and fertile, is the New Israel, bravely committing herself as the handmaid of the Lord to the divine invitation. The shepherds, God’s poor ones, are the first to see, the first to believe, and the first to announce the birth of the redeemer. Today, we renew our faithfulness to the God who loves us and who has journeyed with us throughout history. Today, we pledge our commitment to the plan God has laid out for humankind. Today, we see; we renew our belief; we commit to announce the good news we’ve discovered.
Lord, how can this be? How it is that you have found me and called me by name? What is your will for me? What do you ask of me? May the Spirit heal me of my fear that I might say with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord.” Amen.
ISAIAH 61:1-2A, 10-11. 1 THESSALONIANS 5:16-24 JOHN 1:6-8, 19-28
Hope is the theme of this Sunday’s scriptures. Isaiah puts it in context. St. Paul rejoices in it. And John the Baptist proclaims it to anyone with open ears and a welcoming heart.
Isaiah begins the reflection. He looks into the future and sees a powerful figure, anointed with the Spirit of God, whose mission it will be to bring a message of good news to the people – the poor, the brokenhearted, the captives and the prisoners. Isaiah is describing people like you and me. We may carry the scars of personal tragedy. We may grieve the loss of loved ones or our physical deterioration. We may be healthy and secure, but we may still feel that life is burdensome. Isaiah is telling us that the day is coming when all of us will be directed to a vision of light and liberation. A day is coming when our hope will blossom into joy.
In the second scripture St. Paul tells the community of Christians in Thessalonica to make thanksgiving, joy and prayer the center of their lives. He’s making reference to the Eucharistic gathering – the great Prayer of Thanksgiving. The Eucharist heals the community of despair and hopelessness. It’s the mystical banquet of the kingdom of God that we celebrate. At the Eucharistic table we’re nourished with the very source of joy and hope, Christ himself. Once in our hearts, no one or no thing can take this joy and hope from us.
The passage from the Gospel of John continues to focus the theme of hope as it recounts the testimony of John the Baptist. “A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light. He was not the light but came to testify to the light.” Light, in the Gospel of John, is the divine presence. Throughout his Gospel he juxtaposes light and darkness. Light is love and harmony and peace – all that God is. Darkness is division and malevolence, and the energy of hate.
John’s message of hope assures that the light is very near. He’s encouraging everyone to abandon the mindsets that strengthen the darkness. Hope is the pathway to the light. He invites each of us to clothe ourselves in the light. Each of us have the power to change the way we think and live, and by doing so we can abandon the darkness and step into the light.
Let’s conclude this reflection by returning to Isaiah’s poetic description of hope. Let’s use it as a prayer of thanksgiving for hope fulfilled.
“I rejoiced heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice, like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels. As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.”
ISAIAH 40:1-5, 9-11. 1 PETER 3:8-14 MARK 1:1-8
“Comfort, give comfort to my people.” These words are as important for us to hear today as they were when they were first spoken more than two and a half millennia ago.
The situation seemed hopeless when the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar II, invaded Judah and attacked Jerusalem in 608 BC. The King of Judah was slain during the seige, Jerusalem was destroyed, its temple burned to the ground and the remaining royal family and the prominent people of the city deported to Babylon. They and their descendants remained there until Cyrus, the king of Persia, defeated the Babylonian armies and liberated them in 538 BC. Isaiah’s words of comfort were directed to these exiles.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people…Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated.”
Throughout those seventy years of exile, a small, dedicated group of Jews remained faithful to God and their traditions. Their memory of the temple in Jerusalem was the buoy they clung to – the image that gave them strength and perseverance. Psalm 137 reflects the intensity of their devotion. “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue cling to my palate if I do not remember you; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above all my joys.”
It may seem strange at first, but we’re being encouraged to identify with these exiles today. But we actually do this quite frequently. When we recite the rosary, we clearly unite with these exiles when we pray: “To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
We carry these sentiments as we look at the Advent crèche. The two stories of the birth of Jesus are brought together in the scene. Matthew’s magi are there ready to offer their symbolic gifts. Luke’s shepherds are there ready to be the first to see the savior king. But in the Advent crèche, though all the figures look longingly at the manger bed, the child is absent from the scene.
The empty manger evokes our deepest hopes and longings. The scene promises us a kingdom so very different from anything humankind has ever known, a kingdom of justice and peace, a kingdom in which all are family caring for one another, a kingdom devoid of killing and violence, of hostility and vengeance, a kingdom in which all life is sacred and joyfully celebrated from the moment of conception to the moment of Passover.
Today we’re invited to join the shepherds and the magi for a moment and to contemplate the empty manger with them. We’re invited to envision the new world Jesus preached. Pray the prayer he taught us. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Hope! Hope for the day “when the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all the people shall see it together.”
ISAIAH 63:16B-17,9B; 64:2-7. 1 CORINTHIANS 1:3-9 MARK 13:33-37
We’re beginning this Season of Advent thinking about judgment. In the first reading of the day, the prophet Isaiah describes the sins of the people who have hardened their hearts and wandered away from God. He puts it this way. Speaking for them he says “we have become like unclean people, all our deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.” His words give us much to think about. His prophecy invites us to take an honest look at our personal lives and our corporate lives.
Often, when we think of sin, we only think of what we’ve done that offended God. This approach to sin comes from that part of our spiritual lives that’s still in its infancy. Our relationship with God is based on fear of punishment as a child would fear a strict parent.
Sometimes, when we think more deeply about these same sins, we come to the realization that we’re not offending God directly. When we sin, we sin against other people. We hurt them. Sin is the opposite of love. When we sin against another person we sin against love, and so we sin against God who IS love. This isn’t so much an offense as it is a refusal to love. This is a more mature way to think about sin in our lives.
When I make my examination of conscience, I can question myself about the decisions I make concerning my own well-being. Is
everything I do beneficial for me? Do I smoke? Do I drink too much? Am I overweight? Do I care for my health? I can also judge my interactions with others. Am I kind, understanding, compassionate, supportive, loving?
This is a productive way to examine our consciences. However, there’s another element to sin that we rarely acknowledge – corporate sin. It’s as worthy of judgment as any of our sins against ourselves and others. What is corporate sin?
Corporate sin is like a hidden fire that’s smoldering without our being aware of it. Until we personally see flame and are personally threatened by the fire we ignore it.
We need to recognize that we’re citizens of a city, a state, a country, and we’re citizens of the world. We tend to turn our attention away from our corporate responsibility and so we don’t include it in our examination of conscience. Corporate sin is society’s sin. Each of us is part of society and so we can never absolve ourselves from the sins of society.
To the great delight of the evil one – Americans are hating each other almost as much as we did during our Civil War. Hate is the direct opposite of love. This is sin – corporate sin. Here’s another example of corporate sin.
Our government, that’s us, is presently taking children from the arms of their parents, putting them in cages, ignoring their trauma, their terror, their illnesses. Our government hopes that these human sacrifices will teach a
lesson to anyone who want to cross our southern border illegally. Corporate sin deludes us into thinking that this isn’t my sin – it’s the sin of the people running my government. That sin is screaming out to God. My refusal to hear that scream is corporate sin. It’s as much my sin as the person who tears that child away from her parent’s arms.
As we end one liturgical year and begin a new one, I believe it’s most appropriate and important to make a serious examination of conscience on a mature level, and through the lens of our corporate responsibility. It takes tremendous bravery because acknowledging the sin isn’t enough. As the old catechism taught, a sin wasn’t forgiven until I “confessed my sin, did penance, and amended my life.” As a nation we’re not unified enough to even confess our sin. Never mind doing public penance. Never mind amending our corporate life.
Isaiah, speaking God’s message to us, gives us a word of hope in the darkness of our corporate lives. “There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt. Yet, O Lord, you are our father. We are the clay and you are the potter. We are the work of your hands.”
Let go! Don’t cling to what can’t heal our sin. Our government, our democratic party, our republican party, our socialist party, our green party isn’t ready to confess, do penance and make amends. The prophecy is telling us our only hope is for each of us to put ourselves in God’s hands – like clay in the hands of a potter. We’re being challenged to trust God. To believe that God is the father of love. To submit to love. To allow ourselves to be molded into a new person, individually and corporately. Let’s lift up Isaiah’s prayer every morning, every noon and every night.
“Lord, you are my father; you are our father. We are the clay; you are the potter. I submit myself to your creative hands. Mold me as you will. Use me to heal the world. Amen.”
EZEKIEL 34: 11-12. 1 CORINTHIANS 15: 20-26 MATTHEW 25: 31-46
“The great shofar is sounded, and a still small voice is heard. The angels tremble. Fear and dread seize them, and they exclaim: The Day of Judgment is here! All created beings pass before You, one by one, like a flock of sheep. As a shepherd examines his flock, making his sheep pass under his staff, so do You cause every living soul to pass before You. “(From a prayer recited on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur)
Jesus uses the imagery of the sheep passing under the shepherd’s crook from this wellknown prayer as the basis of his teaching on the Last Judgment. He paints a picture of “the Son of Man” separating humankind the way a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. The sheep enter eternal life, the goats, eternal punishment.
What’s so interesting about this teaching is Jesus’ criteria for judgment. It isn’t what immediately comes to mind. When I think of the great judgment day, I think of God judging sins like pride, greed, murder, theft, adultery, deception, pride, anger. But Jesus doesn’t go that way at all. Instead he, as judge, intimately links himself to suffering humanity. “I was ill. I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was a stranger. I was in prison. I was naked. You didn’t care for me. You didn’t feed me. You didn’t give me something to drink. You didn’t welcome me. You didn’t visit me. You didn’t clothe me.”
What he seems to be teaching is that the primary commandment that the human family is expected to adhere to is to care for one another’s basic needs. Maybe he’s saying that what we think of as sins are actually symptoms of a more profound sinfulness humanity’s disregard of the
Jesus presents this commandment that calls us to care for one another in a very personal and intimate way. I was hungry. YOU didn’t give me something to eat. He’s not condemning us for not setting up a welfare state to assure that everyone has enough to eat. He’s commissioning ME and YOU to reach out, to touch the lives of our suffering brothers and sisters.
The welfare systems we’ve constructed are dehumanizing and humiliating. My mother, a teenager during the great depression, told me of the times she wept because her family was forced to beg for food stamps. Is the situation any better today? Our welfare system has no compassion, no humanity, no heart.
On this Feast of Christ the King each of us stands in judgment before Christ. Each of us are being asked the same question. “When I was hungry, did you feed me?” Standing before him and hearing that question, how do you think you’ll be judged?
Whatever the answer may be, hopefully, he’ll give us another chance. Hopefully, he’ll say to us what he said to the adulterous woman he saved from the condemnation of the religious leaders, “Go, and sin no more.”
PROVERBS 31:10-13. 1 THESSALONIANS 5:1-6. MATTHEW 25:14-30
The Gospel reading today is the well -known parable of the talents. It tells of a man who was going on a long journey. He divided his possessions among three of his servants. Two of them invested what was given to them and doubled it! They were rewarded for their work; they were given greater responsibilities. The third buried what was entrusted to him. He was punished by being thrown “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”
The key to our understanding the message of this parable is bound up with our definition of “talent.” Today we see the word “talent” and immediately think of our God-given abilities. It’s OK to interpret the parable that way, but it tends to limit the teaching by focusing it too much on our artistic, mental or physical abilities.
In Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight, about 75 of our pounds. Its value depended on what was being weighed, copper, gold or silver. In the parable one servant
Though this parable doesn’t begin with the well -known phrase, “the kingdom of God is like,” it IS a parable about the kingdom. God assesses our abilities and apportions the kingdom of God among us with the expectation that we’ll make our portion grow. It’s interesting that what God gives us needs to be given away if our portion of the kingdom is going to expand and grow.
Here’s another way of putting it. The kingdom is in each one of us. When we pour out our lives for the good of others, the kingdom begins to manifest itself. If we bury the kingdom within us, we’ve not only lost the opportunity to partner with God in transforming the world into the kingdom, the portion of the kingdom that was given to us will stagnate within us. We ourselves will be left outside the kingdom where we will mourn our missed opportunity with “wailing and grinding of teeth.”
PRAYER My Father in heaven I freely offer myself to you as your servant. I pray that I may assist you in transforming this struggling earth of ours into your kingdom of peace and harmony, of compassion and caring, of mutual respect and love. Amen.
WISDOM 6:12-16. 1 THESSALONIANS 4:13-18 MATTHEW 25:1-13
This time of the year is when we begin to see nature preparing for her winter sleep. It’s also the time when the Church presents us with scriptures that speak to us of death. This Sunday is one of them.
Saint Paul speaks directly to the topic in his first letter to the Thessalonians. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” He assures us that, if we believe that Jesus died and rose from the dead, if we enter the paschal mystery with him, we’ll walk with him to glory.
The selection from the book of Wisdom adds an interesting nuance to this Sunday’s reflection on death. Wisdom “is readily perceived by those who love her…and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.” Wisdom is presented as our hearts’ deep yearning for God. Wisdom is our search for God, our pathway to God and the divine reality itself. Wisdom is the light of hope within us.
The Gospel uses a marriage custom to teach a lesson about death. Newly married couples didn’t go on a honeymoon. Instead they celebrated with their close friends for several days or even a week. The festivities began with the arrival of the bridegroom. At an unscheduled time he and his entourage of friends began a procession through the streets. A drummer usually preceded them announcing his arrival to the entire neighborhood. They were greeted in the street by the bridesmaids who carried oil lamps that lit the street as the procession continued to the house where the bride was waiting. Once the bridegroom entered the house the doors were closed and the celebration began. No one was admitted after that.
In the parable some of the bridesmaids were foolish and didn’t bring extra oil for their lamps. Late into the night the bridegroom finally arrived. The wise bridesmaids jumped up, added oil to their lamps, and went out to meet the bridegroom. The foolish ones, their lamps about to burn out, asked their wiser friends for some of their oil but they refused lest they themselves run out of oil. The foolish bridesmaids had to go to the town to purchase oil. It was too late, though. By the time they returned the bridegroom had arrived and the doors were closed. They missed the wedding celebration.
The moral of the parable is simple. At whatever time the bridegroom might come, each of us must be ready to greet him. We can’t rely on others to make up for our personal lack of preparation. We might state the moral this way: Live every day as if it were your last. But, and this is a serious but, this isn’t the same as, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.”
For the Christian, being in constant readiness to meet the bridegroom means that we’re prepared to enter the paschal mystery every day and every moment of our lives. This means living in the light of wisdom. This means never fearing to die to my own ego so that I can be more alive for someone else. This is the path of wisdom. This is living the paschal mystery. This is the path to our longed-for glory.
I write this reflection not knowing the outcome of our national election. I know, however, that we have a great deal of work ahead of us, no matter who “wins.” We’ll still have to wear a mask. We’ll still have to struggle with social distancing. We’ll still have to suffer a Thanksgiving and Christmas alone or just with our live-in family. We’ll still be challenged to respond to “Black Lives Matter” and “Me Too.” We’ll still have to wrestle with our personal and institutional demons. We’ll still need the light of Wisdom to guide us. We’ll still need to muster all the courage we have to enter the cycle of death and resurrection.
How else can we hope to beat the pandemic? How else can we hope to rebuild our economy? How else can we ever hope to celebrate our equality? How else can we hope to love each other as brothers and sisters, each of us made in the magnificent image and likeness of God? How else can we, as a nation, ever hope to win? How else can we ever hope to become the beloved community? How else can we be light for the world?