Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray Thy kingdom come; and at Mass we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with the words 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 obvious importance of the topic, most Christians, most of the time, don’t expend a lot of energy thinking about Christ’s coming again. The exception, of course, is those who do, and they seem sometimes to think about it maybe much too much, as happens with individuals or groups that think the Lord’s coming can be predicted precisely, especially in relation to events occurring in the world. American religious history has been full of such expectations - and the movements they gave rise to, a chronic misuse of scripture to make sense of contemporary history, or more accurately to fit what’s happening in the world into convenient categories that serve our immediate interests.
Now, of course, there is really not a lot that is new about this. It is obvious from Saint Paul’s 1st letter to the Thessalonians, from which we just heard [4:13-18], that Paul’s 1st-century audience also 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 particular problem, apparently also probably expected it to happen soon and may even have 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 those who think that the Lord’s coming can be predicted, whom he warns you know neither the day nor the hour. Jesus says this at the end of a parable about a wedding feast – a standard symbol 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 among us who might not be sufficiently 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 did arrive, they found the door to the wedding feast locked shut, leaving them outside.
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 Christians over the centuries have eventually come to understand, the delay has turned out to be a lot longer than was originally expected. Like the bridesmaids in the parable, it is only natural for us to settle down for the long haul, to make ourselves comfortable in the here and now. And the here and now has become very comfortable indeed for far too many of us, dangerously comfortable for far too many of us, especially in this country. 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 increasingly out of fashion and blaming others is the order of the day, the obvious question comes up: why not get some oil from the wise virgins? 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 my own inattention and irresponsibly have let the lamp of goodness go out. When the time comes, each one of us must be ready to meet the Lord, my way lit with the lamp of what good I have made of my life.
Homily for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 12, 2017.