Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Old Prayers, New Words

For four days now, Catholics in the United States (and other parts of the English-speaking world) have been getting used to a new English translation of the 3rd edition of the Roman Missal. Some of us (myself among them) have been looking forward for some time to this new, more literal translation, with its complex sentences and relative clauses - English as it used to be written and spoken in a pre-internet age. Some others have been apprehensive about it - whether out of fondness for the familiar translation in use for the past 40 years or because of objections of a more ideological nature. Still others are largely indifferent. For some, the introduction of this new translation has probably come as a surprise - despite the fact that it has been long in the making and has been the a major conversation topic within the US Church, as well as the subject of many diocesan and parochial programs throughout the US over course of the last year. Whether it comes as old news or as a surprise, however, and whether it is welcomed or resented, it is a change; and change is always a challenge – any change, but especially one that affects established habits such as the words of our prayers.

That said, I have been impressed by how easily the change has happened here. Of course, we had prepared. The new music had already been introduced; so that part of the Mass was already familiar. We had purchased pew cards with all the new lines the people need to learn; and they are being used! At the beginning of every Mass so far, I have been enormously edified to see people grabbing their pew cards and enthusiastically answering "And with your spirit"! Of course, it will take time for the responses to become second-nature. We will all absentmindedly lapse into an occasional "And also with you." But the line between past and future has been clearly drawn. It won't be long before "And also with you" is but a fading memory - an object of nostalgic humor, along with recollections of 1960s "folk Masses" and "clown Masses."

As someone who still talks at New York speed, I have been given an added gift by the new translation. Reciting long sentences of less familiar words, while trying not to lapse into the older formulas, forces me to speak more slowly - hence, hopefully, more reverently. Hopefully, that may translate into a longer lasting benefit for me as celebrant!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Watching and Waiting

This past week (Not unlike lots of other Americans), I flew back and forth across the country to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with my mother, my sister, my brother-in-law, and my 2 college-age nieces. One could, of course, give thanks at any time of year. But autumn, the season of the harvest, naturally lends itself to such sentiments. Autumn, however – especially late
autumn, autumn turning into winter – also gives this holiday time a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, that the Church’s annual cycle captures so singularly in this season of Advent, which (in most churches of the Latin Rite) begins today (unless you happen to live in Milan, Italy, where the ancient Ambrosian Rite is followed, and where Advent already began 2 weeks ago).
Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day, and this Sunday, rather than starting something completely new, continuesthe end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!” Like the servants in today’s Gospel 9Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.
We will do that waiting - in what we might call “liturgical time” - by looking back, to get to the future. Like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Advent introduces us to Christmas, our annual remembrance of Christ’s 1st coming in the past. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd Sunday, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist. Then, on
the 3rd Sunday, we will hear John’s challenge to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present, between Christmas and the end. Finally, this 1st Sunday puts past and present in perspective, focusing on Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living
and the dead.
Hence this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.
Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope – both the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, both the enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays conspires against slowing
down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything. After all, in our work-obsessed society we all, understandably perhaps, brag about being busy – even if that means ignoring Bertrand Russell’s warning that “one of the signs of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
The older I get, the more I think I begin to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware one becomes that time is running out, and thus the more one appreciates the importance of the present. Time – this time, our time – is so precious, precisely because it is limited, but also (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) because it has a future. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at
Christmas and his final coming for which we claim as Christians to be waiting.
Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, created by ecclesiastical kill-joys to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season in which we find ourselves. In any case, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending
Jesus hasn’t already been born, so that we will be somehow surprised on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.
The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and increasingly fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past.
At no other time of year does the world seem so receptive to the story that is told and retold throughout this season. So we need to let this Christmas season speak to us – and through us to the world.
Advent is a wake-up call to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters – matters enough to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its one and only Savior, Jesus Christ.
Homily for the Frist Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 27, 2011.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Giving Thanks

It is arguable that the great American national holiday of Thanksgiving, which we have just celebrated once again, is actually about many things, admittedly about a lot more than just giving thanks. For most people, probably, it is, first and foremost, about family. It’s no accident that Thanksgiving may be the most travelled holiday of the year. We travel, most of us, to share Thanksgiving Dinner with important people in our lives. The dinner is the occasion for the sharing. But, while the sharing part is key, so certainly is the dinner; and so Thanksgiving is surely also about food. And it’s also – in no particular order - about parades, dog shows, football, and, of course, the beginning of Christmas shopping. All that having been said, still for Americans the 4th Thursday of November remains the pre-eminently privileged day for giving thanks.

Back home in Knoxville from Thanksgiving with my family in California, I am thankful for many things. I give thanks to God, first of all, for the mere fact that I am alive. Making it to 63+ may not seem like the accomplishment it once was, but I know (or, rather, knew) enough people who didn’t make it this far. For all my many health concerns, I am OK – not in the best of shape, by any means, but I’m still standing. And that itself merits a fervent prayer of thanks – maybe even a rousing chorus of Now Thank We All Our God!

I am thankful too for my vocation, for being a priest of the Church, for the joy I experience in celebrating the sacred liturgy and preaching the Good News, for the great privilege priesthood has given me to be a part of the lives of so many people, families, and communities, and for the faith-filled parish communities it has been my privilege to minister in – at St. Peter’s, Toronto, St. Paul the Apostle, New York, and now Immaculate Conception, Knoxville.

I give thanks for my family (both immediate and “extended”) and my friends (both the “faithful friends who are dear to us,” who “gather near to us” as in the familiar Christmas song, and also the distant, more marginal ones, including even all my Facebook “friends”).

In a world which seems so distressed in so many ways, Thanksgiving challenges one to prioritize. In a very different 1st century world (a very different – but certainly also distressed – world), the 3rd Pope, St. Clement the Martyr wrote, in his letter to the Corinthians: “The stronger should care for the weak, and the weak should respect the stronger. The wealthy should give to the poor, and the poor man should thank God that he has sent him someone to supply his needs. The wise should manifest their wisdom not in words but in good deeds, and the humble should not talk about their own humility but allow others to bear witness to it. Since, therefore, we have all this from him, we ought to thank him for it all. Glory to him for ever. Amen.”

Amen, indeed!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is the Euro Worth It?

To aid my Italian study, I have been watching (and listening to) historic Italian newsreels on YouTube. I recently watched one featuring the annual ceremony for the Opening of Parliament sometime in the 1930s. Everything followed correct constitutional protocol. The King and his son, the Prince of Piedmont, rode in their state carriage from the Quirinale Palace, followed by other carriages containing the Queen and other Highnesses of the House of Savoy. The members of Parliament stood respectfully and applauded vigorously before and after the Speech from the Throne. Everything appeared correct and normal. It could have been Sweden!
Standing on the sidelines in his respelendent uniform, however, having arrived not by carriage but by car, was the Head of the Government - il Duce, Benito Mussolini. For all the external forms of constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy, I presume that every single person there, from the king on down, understood perfectly well who was really in charge and where the direction of public policy was coming from.
I thought of that video this morning as I read Ross Douthat's column in today's New York Times, in which he highlgihts what he calls "the cold reality of 21st-century politics," Europe's progressive abandonment of democracy and national sovereignty to salvage the Euro (which it probably should never have created in the first place) and the even more fundamental, underlying mistake which is the European Union itself.
Sure, it's convenient to cross borders without having to show one's passport all the time; and there can be no doubt that the original Common Market was a wise move, and that a certain level of economic integration is desirable and beneficial for Europe. Being a big believer in the benefits of national sovereignty in modern nation states, however, I have always been skeptical of the larger EU project, especially as its elitist, anti-democratic, bureaucratic character comes more and more to the fore. As Douthat reminds us: "the fact is that the project of European union has never enjoyed deep popular support. Its advocates were always adept at re-running referendums until the vote came out their way, or designing treaties that bypassed the voting public entirely. The people of Europe have always been wary of trading their sovereignty for ever-greater unity — and now we can see why".
History offers many models for organizing human societies, and the modern nation state is only one of them - and a relative latecomer at that on the political scene. I've always believed, for example, that the pre-World War I Austrian Empire was a lot better for that region than the 20th-century Nazi and Soviet horrors that replaced it. Geographically, the original Common Market (of the Six) corresponded fairly closely to the Empire of Charlemagne, a testament to the enduring commonality of Western Euopean culture, as well as to a residual historical sense of connection and the fittingness of the region as a single economic market. No political arrangement - including the modern, democratic, national state - has transcendent significance, and none is beyond criticism or irreplaceable.
Still, that said, the human benefits made possible by the modern democratic national state are enormous. Certainly, one contributing factor to the present social malaise is that, thanks to globalization, the supposedly still sovereign state can no longer so effectively protect people from the consequences of economic inequality as well as it could back in the 20th century. There have been enormous economic benefits to European integration (as there have been world-wide with globalization). But that should not make us any less vigilant about trying to preserve the social, cultural, and just plain human benefits which - in the modern world at least - can only be fostered and protected - by sovereign states. And those are precisely the social cultural, and human benefits least well fostered and protected by supranational, unrepresentative, anti-democratic, militantly secularist, technocratic bureaucracies like the EU.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Christ the King

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel portrays that final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, as we also know, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life - in effect, the individual end of the world for each one of us personally. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life he or she has been living on earth - confirming each one of us individually in the kind of person you and I have each chosen to become over the course of our life, and, consequently, where each of us will stand eternally in relation to God.

Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in hell (which resembles a rather dreary 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle). There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have trapped them in hell.

The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. (It’s as if some of the “sheep” on the Son of Man’s right side in the gospel story were to try one last time to persuade some of the “goats” to transfer their allegiance from left to right).

One visitor, for example, asks whether heaven will give greater scope for his talents and, what he calls, “an atmosphere of free inquiry.” His friend responds: “No sphere of usefulness: you are not needed there at all. No scope for your talents: only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I will bring you to the land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.” Meanwhile, another heavenly figure poignantly pleads with one of the visitors from hell: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard [Matthew 25:31-46], the visitors seem obstinately unwilling to acknowledge the true nature, implications, and consequences of how they had lived, remaining forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by so many seeming to choose hell over heaven): “There is always something they insist on keeping even at the price of misery. There is always something they prefer to joy – that is, to reality.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”

Lewis wrote a novel, not systematic theology. Like the Gospel’s judgment story, however, it illustrates the unity between the faith we profess and the life it challenges us to lead. It reminds us that we may not simply believe in some private personal way, devoid of larger social - even political - implications. And it dramatically captures how, by my own choices and actions here and now, I can either identify with others or cut myself off from others, and thus ultimately either be forever united with or be forever separated from the one and only source of life, and light, and love, and joy, in whose presence – and only in whose presence – can I hope to thrive for all eternity. Both stories illustrate how the person that I will be forever is the person I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do matters. How I live matters. My actions, my relationships, my entire life matter.

It is, of course, a process – a lifelong process. Listening to Jesus passing judgment in today’s gospel, many of us might wonder how we could ever qualify to be judged as one of the sheep on his right. Many of us might wonder whether we could ever sufficiently overcome our preoccupation with ourselves and do enough for others to be judged as one of the sheep on his right. On a quantitative scale, the fact is we will fall somewhat short of what we would hope to become; what we do will likely fall short of what we believe. But, on the qualitative scale of our ultimate allegiance, we may confidently hope to be aligned in the right direction.

Today, the Church celebrates Christ’s glorious kingship, inviting us to align ourselves with Jesus Christ, who overcame the great gulf between God and us by becoming one of us, and who now challenges us to recognize his continued presence among us in our brothers and sisters, and thus to acknowledge Christ’s kingship here and now, and so enjoy citizenship in his kingdom forever.

Most modern monarchs – for example, the 10 currently reigning European ones, we are probably most familiar with –ascend their thrones rather peacefully, according to established constitutional rules. Once enthroned, a King (or Queen) functions as a sort of social glue that bonds his or her people together and helps create a powerful experience of political unity and community, distinct and separate from others. Like earthly monarchs, Christ the King bonds his people together and creates a special and distinct community. In ascending his throne, however, Christ the King has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power. Bonding his people together in a network of faith and hope lived out in love and mutual service, Christ the King is even now creating a unique community, commanding one’s ultimate and absolute allegiance, in which one must ultimately be either a citizen or not. And that begins here and now, as the person I am becomes, however imperfectly, the person I hope to be for all eternity.

Homily for Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 20, 2011.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Forming a Government

Someone asked me recenlty for my thoughts on Proportional Representation. I am no specialist in voting systems and claim no expertise in such matters. Back when I was a political sicentist, one typically distinguished broadly between single-member electoral schemes in which the candidate with a majority or plurality of the votes in a district wins the seat (the system that has historically predominated in the UK and was inherited from Britain by the US and Canada) and various schemes of “Proportional Representation” which seek to address the evident overall inequity in the single-member system by allocating the seats in Parliament in some proportion to the performance of the competing political parties (a method, variations of which, was at various times adopted in various European parliamentary democracies). The PR method recognizes the existenceof more than one political party – and in turn encourages the existence of multiple parties. Typically such parties represents relatively narrow interests and/or ideologies. In parliamentary systems, when no party commands a majority, typically two or more parties must form an alliance – a coalition – in orderfor the country to be governmed. In such societies, the King, Queen, or President, in additon to performing the “dignified” fucntions of government in his/her role as Head of State is often at the center of the negotiations between/among the competing parties leading to the eventual formaiton of a coalition government. The US, of course, has a presidential system rather than a parliamentary system. So coalition governments in that sense cannot be formed. The American Presidnecy is in that sense the ultimate “single-member district.” Of course, coalitions have historically been formed in American politics – but before rather than after the election. Whereas parliamentary systems with proportional representation encourage more narrowly based, ideologically principled parties, which must then compromise after the election by forming a coalition in order to govern, the American system traditonally has favored forming coalitions before the election, in the form of our traditionally broad-based “big tent’ political parties. It is obvious that each system has its merits and advantages – and disadvantages. So which system one may prefer probably at any particular time depends on what sorts of outcomes one wants to see.

The current serious political dysfunction in the US results in large part from the fact that our two parties are no longer such coalitions. When I was a political scientist, there were liberal Republicans and conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats and conservative Democrats. For a whole host of reasons – among them reapportionment and the greater number of “safe” districts, on the one hand, and the rise of political primaries and the increased importance of money in elections, on the other – the two parties have become much more ideologically “pure.” Republicans candidates and primary voters are way more to the right than the population as a whole, while Democratic candidates and primary voters have become way more to the left than the population as a whole. And the “center,” while it may still exist in the nation, no longer exists at all in government. Hence, the inability of congress to compromise and achieve a “Grand Bargain” on taxes and spending, for example. And it hardly matters that Congress is is held in such notorious disrepute as a result, that a mere 9% of the population has a positive view of Congress, for example. Most incumbents will probably be re-elected – especially if they remain uncompromisingly faithful to the more extreme positions embraced by the likely primary voters in their parties.

So we now have the worst of both worlds – narrowly based, ideological parties competing with one another, but unable to do the equivalent of “forming a government.”

"And Thus We Came to Rome" (Acts 28:14)

Today's reading at Mass from the conclusion of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 28:11-16, 30-31), on this annual memorial of the Dedication of St. Peter's Basilica on the Vatican Hill and St. Paul's Outside the Walls on the Via Ostiense, reads like a travel narrative, describing how Paul finally arrived in Rome. Of course, the whole book of Acts is itself a travel narrative - not just of Paul's (and others') journeys and adventures in the service of the gospel, but the journey of the gospel itself as it travels outward from Jerusalem. Just as Luke's Gospel began in Jerusalem (with Zechariah sacrificing in the Temple and seeing an angel), so too Luke's second volume, Acts, began in Jerusalem (with Jesus's ascension from the Mount of Olives and the apostles's daily prayer in the Temple). But, whereas Luke's Gospel also ended in Jerusalem, Acts recounts the steady, seeming inexorable expansion of the apostolic community outward from Jerusalem, outward finally all the way to the capital of the world, Rome. And thus we came to Rome (Acts 28:14) is not, therefore, just some historical anecdote but a thematic summary of the history of the apostolic Church - and the mission of the Church in every age and era.
Today's Gospel account (Matthew 14:22-33) of Peter walking toward Jesus on the water, only to become frightened and begin to sink and then be rescued by Jesus' outstretched hand, always reminds me of those cartoons I used to watch on Saturday mornings as a boy, in which the character would run off a cliff and keep going until suddenly he looks down and realizes he is walking on air, whereupon he immediately begins to fall. Peter had no trouble walking on the water while he was focused on Jesus. Once he focused on himself, however, his precarious situation started to sink him. Fortunately, Jesus was still there, and Peter could call out to him - refocus - and be saved. That's an unsubtle metaphor for the mission and life of the Church, precariously tossed about by the waves and apparently even beginning to sink, but saved by it focus on the object of its faith, Jesus. The apostles' ministry outward to the world - and Peter's particular ministry as the apostles' leader and spokesman - could never succeed (or even make sense) on the basis of themselves but could only succeed by remaining faithful to Jesus whose witnesses they were commissioned to be. So too the Church succeeds not by human prowess but by fidelity to to the witness of its founding apostles and to the mission entrusted by Christ to the Church through those great apostles.
And so the gospel came to Rome, as from Rome it continues to go out to all the world.
Homily for the Memorial of the Dedication of the Basilicas of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 18, 2011.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"And with your spirit"

The Latin words Dominus vobiscum ("the Lord be with you") - and the response et cum spiritu tuo (“and with your spirit”) - were once among the best known words of the Catholic Mass. In the pre 1970 rite, the priest typically said it 8 times – at the end of the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, before the Collect (“Opening Prayer”), before the Gospel, at the Offertory, at the Preface, before the Postcommunion, before the Dismissal, and finally before beginning the Last Gospel. At sung Mass, all but the first and last of these verses and responses would have been sung. Four times (before the Collect, at the Offertory, before the Postcommunion, and before the Dismissal) the priest would turn around and face the people to say or sing Dominus vobiscum – unless, of course, he was already facing the people, a relative rarity in the English-speaking world, but the norm, for example, at solemn Papal Mass in the Major Basilicas of Rome. (The old Missal pointedly provided for this contingency in its directions on how to celebrate Mass.)
The familiar response et cum spiritu tuo (“and with your spirit”) has been the universal response in both Eastern and Western Churches since at least the year 215. (According to one 5th-century author, the word “spirit” refers “not to the soul of the priest but to the Spirit he has received through the laying on of hands” and represents the community’s prayer that the priest may fulfill his role as celebrant in the grace bestowed upon him by the Holy Spirit).
Since the shift to the vernacular in the 1960s, it has been translated accordingly in almost every language (e.g., y con tu espiritu, und mit deinem geist, etc.) One notorious exception, however, has been English, in which for the past four decades the congregation has been reduced to responding “and also with you.”
(I’m sure we have all heard the familiar joke about the priest who at the start of Mass realizes his microphone is not working and says, “There is something wrong with this microphone,” to which his automatic-pilot congregation loudly responds “And also with you”).
In just under three weeks, this anomaly will be corrected as a new, revised translation of the Roman Missal is introduced. The entire order of the Mass – both the Ordinary (the normally unchanging parts) and the Proper (the parts that vary from day to day) – has been re-translated. Only the scripture readings in the liturgy of the Word (contained in a separate book, The Lectionary) will not change, since they are taken ultimately from previously authorized translations of the Bible. (In the United States, the New American Bible is the scripture translation in official use in the liturgical books).
The main concern underlying this new translation seems to be to make the words worshipers hear and recite accord as literally as possible with the base Latin text. For various reasons, the translation in use these past 40 or so years took certain liberties with the text in the name of what is called “dynamic equivalence.” In the process, much of the poetry and dignity of the words was lost – as were all sorts of familiar phrases (e.g,, the triple “through my fault” in the Confiteor, the Centurion’s words in the Domine, non sum dignus before Communion, etc.) In returning to the principle of “formal equivalence” in the translation process, we will now have a text that is both more faithful to the original and more elevated in its words, sentence structure, and cadence than its 1970s predecessor.
The new translation should be welcomed as a further spur to recovering a more reverent style of worship and a fuller sense of what the liturgy is about. Even so, change is always challenging, and some will undoubtedly find these changes somewhat difficult. (I remember well what it was like when we went from Latin to English, when “the changes,” as they were then commonly called, were first imposed upon relatively unprepared and unsuspecting congregations in the mid 1960s!) Now – as back then – these changes should remind us all that the liturgy is the Church’s common worship and not our private individual prayer, and that it is in fact a gift from the Church to be received by us with fidelity – and gratitude.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Enough Oil in One's Lamp

Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray Thy kingdom come; and at Mass we conclude the Lord’s Prayer by saying as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ. (In three weeks, that will become as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ).
Yet I think it is safe to suggest that, despite what we say in our prayers and despite the intrinsic importance of the topic, most of us, most of the time, probably don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about Christ’s coming again. That’s except, of course, for those who do! They, however, sometimes seem to think about it maybe a little too much, as happens particularly with individuals or groups that think the Lord’s coming can be precisely predicted, especially in relation to events that may be presently occurring in the world.
Now, of course, there’s really not a lot that’s new about any of this. It’s obvious from St. Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard [4:13-18], that Paul’s audience apparently expected Christ’s coming to occur soon – and so were worried whether those who died in the interim would miss out on something. And Paul himself, while telling the Thessalonians not to worry about that, obviously also expected it to happen soon and expected to be alive himself, as he says, to meet the Lord in the air.
Meanwhile in today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:1-13], Jesus seems to be addressing least least two different groups, covering all the bases, so to speak. To those who think that the Lord’s coming can be predicted, he says you know neither the day nor the hour. Jesus says this at the end of a parable about a wedding feast – a standard image in both the Old and the New Testaments for the coming kingdom of God – but a wedding for which the bridegroom was long delayed.
On the other hand, to those apparently not so concerned about the Lord’s coming, Jesus cites the case of the five foolish virgins, who brought no oil with them, when taking their lamps, and so, when the bridegroom finally arrived, found the door to the wedding feast locked solid.
At an ordinary wedding in Jesus’ time, the bridesmaids would have waited with the bride at her house for the bridegroom to come and lead her to his home. But the coming of the kingdom doesn’t follow the ready-made script of an ordinary wedding. Hence, the delay.
As St. Paul and other 1st-century Christians eventually came to understand, the delay would turn out to be a lot longer than they had ever expected. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, it’s only natural for us to settle down, so to speak, for the long haul, making ourselves comfortable in the here and now. But sooner or later the call will come: “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” And when the call comes, then, like the five wise virgins, we must be ready. Each one of us individually must be ready.
In an age when taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions seems so counter-cultural, so increasingly out of fashion, the question comes up: why couldn’t the wise virgins share some of their oil? In an age when taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s actions seems increasingly out of fashion, the most jarring thing about this parable may be the fact that, when the kingdom comes, there will be no one else to pin the blame on if I have let my lamp go out. When the time comes, each one of us individually must be ready to meet the Lord with the lamp of I have made of my own life.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 6, 2011