November has been traditionally the month of the “Poor Souls,” as we used to say, those who have gone before us in death and for whom we pray especially at this time of year. And it is a good idea, for we most certainly will follow them sooner or later. The year itself is coming to an end, and the fall of leaves is a beautiful if melancholy reminder that things end, that all life comes to its close in death. And there seems to have an uncommon amount of death recently, especially shootings, and not only on the streets of Chicago, but in every corner of the nation. We are told that it’s not about guns. But the facts argue otherwise.
Today’s readings might also make us a little nervous if we listen carefully. For not only does the inevitable end of my own world cause me to wonder, but considering the end of everything is likely to give us all goose bumps. And perhaps it should, even though the stock market index has been rising steadily,
unemployment is low, mortgages are cheap, and shiny new cars are appearing on cue. But if we are prone to watch the evening news on television or keep up on line, what’s happening in North Korea, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Yemen worries us, and we get the jitters easily about terrorism, the flu, earthquakes, weird storms, and the sleaze that seems to be enveloping the world of politics and the entertainment industry. It’s about ankle deep now.
Putting things into a broader and deeper perspective can be a bracing experience. After all, there are more important things than money, power, and fame. And so the initial reading this morning is especially timely. It comes from the Book of Wisdom, a work composed only a few decades before the birth of Jesus. One of the most beautiful books in the Bible, it extols the wisdom of God, reassuring us that the world, this whole vast universe, lies in wiser and more caring hands than ours. The most telling phrase comes towards the end of the reading: “anyone who keeps vigil for Wisdom’s sake shall quickly be free from care,” that is, from worry and concern.
Keeping vigil is the watchword from now until Christmas, in fact, as the violet shadows of Advent draw closer in the waning of the year. To keep vigil means to stay alert, to keep awake, to watch for God the way a sentinel longs for the first glimmer of dawn. Or as Psalm 63, our responsorial song, has it, “I will remember you, God, as I lay in bed, and through the watches of the night, I will meditate on you. For you are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy.” For anyone who has lain awake at night worrying about the future, or even the present, such words can be truly helpful.
The Christians of Thessalonika to whom St. Paul was writing were very churned up about the end of the world, much like many people today who are endlessly twittering about mega-earthquakes, super-volcanoes, asteroid flybys, or the countless other things beyond the economy that can go really, really wrong. Some of those new Christians were panicky while others seemed paralyzed. But Paul reassures them — and us — that death is not the last word, not the ultimate power in the universe. If it seems a little strange at this time of year to hear passages about the Resurrection of Jesus, consider the promise and hope it presents to anyone to whom death has come a little too close. For all our hope centers on the Resurrection of Jesus, the definitive sign God gave the world to steady its faith in the midst of fear and even catastrophe.
The next reading contains one of the parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers. Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images. This time, however, his focus is not on the guests, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were waiting not for the bride, but for the groom to appear. That’s so strange, actually, that it’s very likely that Matthew purposely left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who would have been on his way to take the bride to his home. But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delays grows longer.
The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones. But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense. In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life. Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared. Don’t waste your energy on the senseless predictions of fortune tellers and self-appointed prophets of doom. A later sage might tell the story of Chicken Little to get the same message across. (And if you haven’t heard that one, ask your grandparents.) What Jesus is saying is that no one knows the day or hour, and that is exactly the reason we should be ready for it at any time.
Not only Jesus but many of the great spiritual teachers of the past advise us to live every moment as if it were going to be our last, which gets down to the same thing. Like Paul, they counsel us not to panic or freeze, but rather to stay alert, to keep our wits about us, which is what being prudent means. And when our last moment actually arrives, we may be surprised, but we will also be prepared. As the old African-American spiritual says, “ready to meet my Lord.” For there is a great day coming, and, as Shakespeare said in his own turn “The readiness is all.”