32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
By Fr. James Farge, CSB
The parable we have just heard – bridesmaids providing oil lamps for a wedding banquet – doesn’t resonate very well with us today. Bridesmaids don’t carry oil lamps any more. Nobody carries oil lamps anymore! So, let’s try to update the parable: suppose you suddenly have to fly to a foreign city where you’ve never been and where you don’t even speak the language. But then you remember you do know somebody there – an old friend – and he agrees to meet your flight and see that you get set up comfortably for the night. But then, at the last minute, your flight gets cancelled, and the next one is in eight hours, and you can’t get in touch with your friend. What a disaster that will be if you arrive and he is not there – and what a relief if, when you arrive, you see him waiting at the gate.
Putting it that way, I think we can better see why, in our Gospel parable, the bridegroom and his bride, arriving very late, were so relieved to find those bridesmaids still there to meet them and with enough oil and light to escort them to the banquet hall and were not particularly happy with those who were not able to help.
The meaning of the parable – whether in its original form or the one I substituted – all boils down to fidelity: whether one is faithful to a promise or a commitment. We value fidelity in others, especially when we know that their fidelity has not been easy for them. It is one thing to be faithful when all goes according to plan. It is another to remain faithful when we find ourselves facing difficulties that we had not anticipated.
Well, what about our own fidelity? When does the Lord call us to fidelity. He did it when he commanded us to love others as we love ourselves. Fidelity is not just a favour that we can grant or not grant, depending on our mood. It is in fact a debt that we owe – and not just for a short time but for the long haul – for a lifetime. God calls us every day to fidelity in the way we give to others the love that we owe them: to spouse, children, parents, colleagues, friends, even strangers. It means being there for others: “for better or for worse.”
That phrase – “for better or for worse” – brings us back to the element of marriage in our Gospel parable: not just the fidelity of the bridesmaids with their oil and lamps but also the fidelity of the bride and the bridegroom: fidelity for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness or in heath. In another Gospel passage from Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 5), Jesus calls on us to be “the light of the world.” So we are to keep our lights burning – not oil lamps but the lamp of fidelity that, even in tough times, both emanates from love and throws its light on love.
The words addressed to parents at the baptism of a child express this beautifully and in close parallel to today’s Gospel: The priest or deacon says “May this child keep the flame of faith alive in her/his heart. When the Lord comes, may he/she go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom.” At one of the most solemn moments in the Church’s liturgical year, at the beginning of the Easter vigil, we hear the singing of the “Exultet” – the song in praise of the newly-lit paschal candle that has banished the darkness of Lent and illuminates the start of Easter. That, too, is a call to us to keep that flame burning, so that our “light,” our love, our fidelity is there for others. And whenever we are there for others, we are at the same time being there to meet our Lord when he comes as the bridegroom of his Church..
In today’s world, it can be a struggle to keep the flame of faith, of fidelity, alive in our hearts. I don’t mean merely in this trouble-filled time of pandemic. I mean in the longer run of living in a secular society that bombards us with commercials whose message is to look out first for ourselves and to let others look after themselves. We all know people who have fallen victim to the worldly gospel and, as a result, have no sense of fidelity. So, too, do we know that unexpected or tragic events and disappointments can threaten to extinguish the flame of our own fidelity. At such times, we may be tempted to cry out with the foolish bridesmaids, “We have no more oil.” Do we not also sometimes feel all burned out? But our oil, our lamp, are not self-generated: they are grace, gifts from God.
Like the wise bridesmaids in the parable (or the friend waiting at the terminal gate), we as followers of Christ are called to be there with – metaphorically – our lamps lit, with our fidelity to the commandment of love, no matter the task, no matter the day or the hour. If, even in long hours of darkness, of doubt, of waiting, not even sure sometimes of what we’re waiting for – it’s so essential to keep the flame of faith, of love, of fidelity burning, God returns that love, that fidelity, and he returns it more abundantly than we can even imagine.