Sunday, November 12, 2017

ON BEING PREPARED






Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Matthew 25:1-13

Every year or two, I get a letter from the Priest Personnel Office telling me to update my funeral plans. They want to know, among other things, where my will is, where I want to be buried, what readings I want read, what music I want sung and who I wanted to preach and preside at my funeral Mass.

Many years I start to fill it out, but finally lay it aside. Often. I just can’t get into it. Since not doing it could put both the diocese and my family in a bind someday, they usually send a reminder insisting that I fill it out and send it in. I usually get it done, but I guess I’m a little like Woody Allen who once said, “I know everybody dies, but I’m still hoping an exception will be made in my case.”

As we wind down another liturgical year, the church asks us to think about death and entering the kingdom of God. We will be hearing some parables over the next three weekends that will challenge us to make plans for “the end of what we know here” and “the beginning of what we can’t even imagine there,” even though we don’t know the day or the hour.

Today we have the first of three such parables. In today’s parable, Jesus tells a colorful little story about ten virgins waiting for a bridegroom to arrive for his wedding. It has some important things to teach us how to wait for his return at the end of time and the beginning of the wedding feast of heaven.

This little story is very much based on everyday reality. Things like this really happened at weddings back then and they happen even to this day in the middle-east. Weddings receptions were nothing like our cake and punch receptions, they were week-long blow-outs. To be invited was a great honor and a good time would have been had by all! Remember the marriage feast at Cana when Jesus turned the water into wine?  The wedding party ran out of wine probably on the fourth or fifth day – and it was at that point that Jesus created 150 more gallons of wine!

When a wedding was announced, no precise date or time of day was given, only that it was about to happen. Couples did not go away for “honeymoons,” they stayed at home and kept “open house” for a week of partying. People had to be prepared to join the wedding procession whenever the bridegroom chose to show up for the wedding. It could be anytime, day or night; that day, the next day and in a week or two. Once he started toward his house, all the invited guests fell into line and followed him to his house where the ceremony took place. If he decided to begin the wedding procession at night, you had to be ready because it was illegal to be in the streets without a lighted lamp. Once the bridegroom and his guests came through the streets and entered his house, the door was shut and late-comers were not admitted.

In this story, five virgins brought extra oil for their lamps in case the groom were to be delayed, while five were not prepared for such an eventuality. The bridegroom took his time in coming and the five foolish virgins were “caught with their pants down,” so to speak. Having run out of oil, they had to wait till morning to go for more. In the meantime, the wedding party reached the house and the door was barred. As a result of their procrastination, they missed one hell of a party! What’s the message? If you snooze, you lose!

The first thing this parable teaches us is that the end is going to be wonderful for those who are ready for it. Even though we claim every Sunday in the prayer after the Our Father that we “wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ,” most of us still believe that the end will be about sadness and loss, doom and gloom. Not so! “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it even dawned on us the great things God has in store for those who love him.”

The second thing this parable teaches us is that when it comes to the great “wedding feast of heaven,” living in readiness, waiting in joyful hope, makes a lot more sense than running around and trying to get ready at the last minute, with the risk of missing out altogether.

The more I read these parables, the more I believe that “hell” is the realization that we have missed out of the greatest opportunity in the universe and it was all our own fault.  It may not be a matter of God punishing us or getting even with us for a wasted life, but a matter of us snoozing and losing!  Just as the whole town was invited to first century weddings, we are all invited to the great wedding feast of heaven. It’s up to us to miss the boat. If we were to put in today’s language, everyone of us has been given a free, winning Powerball ticket for the zillion dollar drawing and some of us will misplace it out of carelessness and inattention. Can you imagine what it would be like to know the rest of your life that you threw away a $100,000,000 lottery ticket because you were careless and weren’t paying attention? Can you imagine missing something, even more wonderful, so wonderful that human beings can’t even begin to imagine it? That “something wonderful” is the “eternal life” that Jesus offers each one of us! 

The third thing this parable tells us, just as the others like it, is that we do not know, nor can we predict, the day or the hour. I get so tired of those TV evangelists who claim to be able to de-code the so-called “prophecies” about the “end time.”  Jesus said, “Do not listen to them and do not follow them.” Jesus is clear: we must live in readiness, not look for signs and portents so that we can predict the end and “get ready.”  The only reason to try to predict the end, is to live anyway we want and then try to get ready right before the bell sounds. Forget it! You can’t predict it. The only thing you can do is live in readiness with your lamps lit, your belt around your waist and your feet shod, as the scriptures so poetically puts it.  Like a pregnant woman with a bag packed ready for the trip to the hospital, no matter what time of the day the labor pains hit, we Christians are called to live with our bags packed. 

We all like to think that we will all die after a long illness when we are old, but that may not happen. We may die today, tomorrow, next month or years and years from now. We don’t know, so we must live in readiness so that we will not miss out on the most incredible party known to mankind. Living in readiness does not mean that we are morbidly preoccupied with death, it means to live life to the full every day, to be the very best human being we can be, to love God with all our minds, hearts and souls and our neighbors as ourselves. If we live that way, then it doesn’t matter when the end will come, we will be prepared! Yes, we might be asked to prepare our funerals, but that is not nearly as important as planning our life!    

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