"Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Matt 25:13).
If you have attended a wedding recently, you know that one of the first questions you are asked when being seated by the ushers is whether you are a friend of the bride or of the groom. We are at an event that is all about friendship, the celebration of a couple whose friendship has brought them to the threshold of lifelong intimacy and commitment.
Today's parable about a wedding is also about the essential call to friendship with God. If we ask what the oil is that the virgins needed to welcome the bridegroom, it was a relationship with him. This is a reality that cannot be provided to us if we haven't cultivated and deepened it over time. Friendshp is not something we can borrow from someone else or pretend to have or generate all of sudden if it isn't there. An analogy is the chaotic scene before a big test in school, when students who have not studied all semester ply those who have studied for last-minute help. It is simply too late.
The virgins, or bridesmaids, who have oil are called wise. Today's first reading is about the figure of Wisdom, depicted in the Bible as a beautiful woman who comes to those who love her and seek her. She is the focus of their desire during the day and their dreams at night. She provides a feast in the desert, a profound inner peace, because those who befriend Wisdom befriend God, and therefore they have everything they will ever need in this world and in anticipation of the next.
The parable is one of several toward the end of Matthew's Gospel that emphasize the need to stay awake and alert. Jesus surely told his disicples this repeatedly toward the end of his life, knowing they would be plunged into darkness at his death. The early church needed this same kind of attentiveness when Jesus' anticipated "second coming" was delayed and members of the community were "falling asleep" in actual death. What the church gradually realized and adapted to was that, lIke the bridegoom delayed in coming, the risen Jesus was also already present and active through the Holy Spirit. A vigilant faith was needed to fully understand this.
The emphasis on vigilance lends a certain harshness to the lesson learned by the foolish virgins. They do not have enough oil for their lamps, and since the wise vigins cannot share theirs, they must go off to purchase extra oil. But when they arrive late, the door to the wedding is already closed and locked. The bridegroom does not know them. We might ask if this was part of the original parable or a warning by Matthew. The Jesus we know from the rest of the Gospels is always merciful to those who fail or who come late.
Each of us can assess this for ourselves with some basic question: Just what kind of relationship do I have now with God? What habits of prayer do I practice? Do I seek to understand the Scriptures or make an effort to receive the sacraments? All of these are relevant to our growth in faith in much the same way that our effort to cultivate any human relationship requires attention. Do we grow in any friendship if we never communicate or spend time with someone?
The simple truth is that what we will experience as heaven -- union with God -- begins here and now, and will be essentially the same relationship fully revealed when the Bridegroom comes at midnight and we are awakened from the sleep of death. Will we be ready? If we begin today, we will be.