November 6, 2011 - Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

This parable is confusing for some people, but a little clarification goes a long way. The virgins are girls, bridesmaids. Virgin is just the standard word for an adolescent girl. Their job was to be a part of the procession, carrying lamps.

I used to think that the wise girls were really the selfish girls. I learned about sharing in kindergarten, but it seems that these girls did not. Why not share the oil? Then I finally heard, as if for the first time, the reasoning of the wise girls and realized that they were right. There might not be enough for both. The oil each girl had in her flask might keep her lamp lit for 8 hours but would only keep two lamps lit for 4 hours. If they had shared the oil, they might have ended up with no light at all. It would be foolish to share the oil and burn through the limited supply twice as quickly.

What about the strange words of the bridegroom, “I do not know you”? The foolish girls went to town to buy some oil, and when they came back, presumably with well-lit lamps, they knock on the door respectfully. “Lord, Lord”, they say, “open up for us.” He does not refuse to open, but simply admits that he does not know them.

There is a parallel here between this parable and the end of the Sermon on the Mount, 18 chapters earlier. There Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” The girls say “Lord, Lord.” The bridegroom says, “I do not know you.”

So what do all these symbols mean? Oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit: it is used in Baptism and Confirmation and Anointing of the Sick to signify the Holy Spirit. If that is the case, there are two kinds of Holy Spirit in this parable, for there are two kinds of oil container. Some of the Holy Spirit is in a lamp, burning. Some of the Holy Spirit, at least for the five wise girls, is in a flask, not burning. So also, in every Christian, there are two kinds of Holy Spirit: there is the Holy Spirit that burns – a jumping up and down, casting out demons, speaking in tongues, healing the sick with a touch, floating in the air kind of Holy Spirit, and then there is the Holy Spirit that does not burn – a quiet, prayerful, loving your neighbor, biting your tongue, suffering patiently kind of Holy Spirit.

Of course there is really only one Holy Spirit, just as the oil in the lamps and the oil in the flasks was the same oil. It is not the Holy Spirit who is different; the difference is in the containers: our souls. Now all the girls had lamps, but only some had flasks. Every Christian is glad to have the power of the lamp, but not everyone wants to do the work required to fill up the flask. Some Christians go so far as to consider the lamps to be the real Holy Spirit. They gather on Sunday and speak in tongues and play music that sets their hearts on fire; they like to see miracles and healings and spectacular conversions. These are gifts from God; I do not denigrate any of this, but if this is all Christianity is for them, they are like the foolish girls: lamps but no flasks.

It is in quiet prayer that we fill our flasks. Here at Mass we fill our flasks. It was a mistake that in the past 50 years we have filled the silence of Mass with piles of hymns. It is in the silence that we fill our flasks. We will never make Mass as fun as MTV. Trying to make Mass as fun as MTV is like trying to make a hammer as musical as a guitar: the effort is destined to fail and, with each attempt, we have a less powerful hammer. The Church is calling us to return to silence, uncomfortable silence. Not merely the absence of noise, but the space to pray.

It is in patient suffering that we fill our flasks. Suffering is either accepted or chosen. We can accept suffering in sickness or cruel treatment. We can also choose to suffer by fasting or vigils or discomfort. Our culture cannot understand why someone would choose to be uncomfortable or accept suffering gladly. All suffering, whether avoiding meat every Friday or sleeping without a pillow, whether being shunned for refusing to gossip or being unjustly imprisoned, whether a papercut or terminal cancer, can be an opportunity to fill our flasks. Accepting suffering does not mean that we do not seek a cure, but that every pain-filled moment, every dangerous surgery, and nauseous medicine, becomes something we share with Christ dying on the Cross, a commonality between two suffering people.

It is in loving that we fill our flasks, loving our neighbor and loving our enemies: forgetting ourselves; thinking of what others need, how we could make life better for them by putting in the extra effort; refusing to rest when we do not need rest; refusing to rot in front of a screen; considering it no waste of time when we miss a show to help a brother. To love means to live for. If we love ourselves, we live for ourselves. If we love others, we live for them.

It is in study that we fill our flasks. So many people are ready to declare themselves experts on the faith. This is an epidemic in our whole culture, when every Joe has an opinion about global climate change. It is possible to live a simple faith, looking to others for guidance, but it is better to study. When this study is done humbly, realizing that however much is learned, there is more to understand, then a Christian fills their flask.

It is the will of God that we fill our flasks, so if anyone says to us, “Oh you with your boring Christianity”, while juggling snakes and drinking poisons and dancing in the aisles, if anyone tells us that we are missing something because we do not shout often enough, let us go on nonetheless, filling our flasks, waiting for the Bridegroom.