Welcoming the Lord, witnessing to Love

GOD'S WORD TODAY - Manuel V. Francisco, S.J. -

I write this in the airport in Amman, Jordan, after a week in the Holy Land. In relation to our Gospel reading today, I asked our Palestinian-Christian guide, Sakher Rizkalla, to explain the context of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom.

Historical-cultural context. Unpacking the meaning of our parable today is difficult because of our unfamiliarity with Jewish wedding customs during Jesus’ time. One interpretation, the more common one, maintains that the ten virgins who awaited the arrival of the bridegroom escorted him as he picked-up his bride-to-be and brought her to the venue of their wedding, often the home of the father of the groom. Another interpretation purports that the virgins awaited the arrival of the couple after the marriage rites. Sakher explains that after the wedding ceremonies, the groom would take his bride to their new home. Friends and relatives would have spruced up the new house and welcomed them with a communal celebration.

The ten virgins, Sakher continues, would have been the unmarried friends of the bride. Since the celebration went on into the night, the virgins would have brought lamps, or torches, as other scholars maintain, not only to welcome the newly-wed couple, but also to light their path back home after the celebration.

Realizing they had not brought enough oil for the entire evening’s festivities, the five foolish virgins either buy oil or go back home to bring sufficient oil for the night. Consequently, they would have missed the arrival of the couple and would have had less time to participate in and enjoy the celebration. Moreover, sometime during the reception, the bride would bless her bridesmaids, praying that one of them might soon be married also. The five foolish virgins risked missing the blessing of the bride.

Symbolic Meaning of the Parable. As we approach the Feast of Christ the King, the end of our liturgical calendar, our readings at Mass invite us to extend our gaze to the End Times. In these readings, Jesus instructs us to prepare ourselves spiritually and morally for the coming of the kingdom, symbolized in our Gospel today as a wedding banquet. The five virgins with burning oil lamps signify those who profess faith in Jesus as Lord through their fulfillment of the Law of love, whereas the five foolish virgins who cry out, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us,” refer to those who profess faith in Jesus but do not live out the teachings of Jesus on love, justice and mercy.

Theological Tensions. While the Lord in the Gospel parable may seem hard and exacting, Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians, our Second Reading, brims with hope, “We do not want you … to grieve like the rest, who have no hope.” We will thus have to hold in tension God’s justice and God’s mercy. On the one hand, divine judgment: to the cry of the foolish virgins the Lord replies, “Amen, I do not know you.” On the other hand, divine graciousness: to the Thessalonians Paul assures, “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Whereas in times past, the Church stressed our sinfulness and the holy fear of the Lord, the Church today underscores God’s unconditional and inclusive love, a God utterly approachable and accessible, tender and ever merciful. 

Moreover, whereas in times past we preoccupied ourselves with sin, with what constitutes mortal and venial sin, and with how to make amends for sin, today many of us have swung to the other extreme and have become amoral. Many of us have become indifferent to sin, desensitized to the pangs of guilt, no longer feeling remorse for hurting God, others or ourselves. Pop culture now disturbingly glamorizes villains as “cool” and encourages sin as “liberating”. We thus need to avoid both extremes. On the one hand, a childish preoccupation with sin, and on the other, an indifference to the reality of our sinfulness and participation in evil.

Lastly, we will also have to hold in tension divine judgment and our free decisions. On the one hand, God’s sovereignty over our lives and destiny, and on the other hand, our free decisions that shape the persons we become. God judges who we have become through all our decisions for or against selflessness, integrity and compassion. 

As we come to the end of our liturgical calendar and approach the Feast of Christ the King, let us welcome our Lord with oil lamps burning, with lives conformed more and more through grace to that of our Lord Jesus, the embodiment of God’s love, justice and mercy.

Fr. Manoling Francisco, SJ is a prolific composer of liturgical music and serves on the faculty of the Loyola School of Theology. For feedback on this column, e-mail tinigloyola@yahoo.com.




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