Year A is winding towards its end, with the usual theme of the ‘end time’ – the Second Coming of Jesus. That dominates the reading for the next three weeks. Most years when the shops and ads are already pushing us towards celebrating Christmas, it is an effort to match the liturgy’s mood, but in 2020 in the midst of a world-wide pandemic, political unrest in many places, weather catastrophes, and a continued food crisis in many places, the outlook is already ‘apocalyptic’. Our task now is to remember than this is a time for Christian hope!
An alternative theme is in our first selection, reminding us we have the guidance we need at hand. The various ‘Wisdom’ books of the Bible show two different patterns, one is much advice for leading a good and happy life, the other is seen in this reading: a personification of Wisdom seen as an aspect of God. Christians found in these poetic pictures ways to understand both Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The idea of ‘watch’ will be picked up in a different tone in the Gospel. There is a charming picture of ‘Lady Wisdom’ looking for us even as we may be watching for her. The timeless message is that we have ready access to what we need to know and understand about living wisely and faithfully.
The theme of ‘looking or thirsting for God’ follows well after the first reading and the word ‘banquet’ is a hint of the wedding celebration of the Gospel.
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, or 4:13-14
St Paul reassures his early converts that death will not be the end of life, starting with comfort for those who have lost those they love. This has special relevance in 2020 as we see death numbers from Covid-19 rising daily. Paul also wants them to have hope for their own resurrection. Behind his words is the belief of Christians (as we profess in the Creed at mass) that at some time this world and its time-frame will come to an end with Jesus’ coming ‘again’. At the early date of this Letter, the first Christians expected this to be very soon in their own lifetime. It would take some adjustment to realise that this end could be long delayed. We see some of that shift behind the Gospel, addressing the idea of ‘delay’. We in our times, tend to go in an opposite direction: it has been so long we forget it will come, and instead we expect our own deaths first.
The selection takes up the second of three parables about being ready for Christ’s coming. Unlike the usual ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ comparisons, this is directed to the future – ‘will be like’. There are various questions that arise and I found help in R. T. France’s detailed book on Matthew. There is some confusion for us as we do not know the wedding customs of that period that would explain the actions that the story is based on; as usual they would have been known to the first hearers of this parable. Rather than guessing or offering suggestions, France says it is best to admit our ignorance. We can get the essential message without understanding the full background.
The translation we hear of ‘bridesmaids’ is a misleading one; the Greek text has a word that means ‘virgins’, apparently young maidens who played a part in the wedding celebrations perhaps at the groom’s home. There is no mention of the bride, they are instead preparing for the coming of the bridegroom. An image used in the Hebrew Bible was of God as the bridegroom or husband of Israel. This stressed the intimacy of God’s love for His people. Christians took up the image and applied it to Christ, who loves His disciples with a similar intimacy. This hints from the very beginning that the story is about the coming of Jesus, and in the context of Matthew, where it follows his prediction of the world’s end (chapter 24), it means the ‘Second Coming’.
What is clear is that what the ten maidens are preparing for is some sort of procession that will lead to the big feast of the wedding celebration. Their part seems to be carrying torches or lamps. Either of these would burn oil, which would need replenishing The wise ones therefore have brought extra oil. The foolish have not considered that being prepared is necessary. If the wise ones share, there will not be enough for all the lamps.
No attention is given to any reason for the bridegroom’s delay, the whole focus on the fact that he has not come at the time expected. We now can fit this to the second reading: Jesus did not come at the immediate time expected in that era and we still wait for him.
The shutting out the foolish from the banquet sounds harsh, but an earlier saying in Matthew (see 7:21-23), explains there are those who pretend to obey God, but have not really done so. When they call ‘Lord, Lord’, he replies, ‘I do not know you’ for they have not really responded to him. There is also a seeming oddity in that the final warning is ‘stay awake’ while the wise maidens have slept along with the foolish, a reminder that we do not try to fit in all the details of an illustrative story. The words are a general summary, fitting well the previous parable which we do not hear (24:45-51). They may have become a common expression meaning ‘be ready’ – as we use them now, as well and say ‘Wake up’ meaning ‘pay attention’.
This section of Matthew does not take up what would be the right preparation for Jesus’ coming that is symbolized by carrying a supply of oil. For this, we can look back in the whole Gospel for the instructions on right living, beginning with chapter 5 up to the commands heard recently at mass of not seeking personal glory or acting for show.
Do we just ‘pretend’ to be expecting Christ and and doing what he commanded, or do our lives show we are really getting preparing to meet our Lord with rejoicing?