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11/12/23 Homily: Lamps and Oil

Sunday's readings can be found: [HERE]

In another place, our Lord said, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to” (cf. Lk. 13:24). At another time, Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt. 7:21a). We’ve heard these passages and others like them in our recent weeks.

Like seismic tremors before a great earthquake, or like contractions before childbirth, this leit motif seems to repeat itself more frequently as we approach the end of the liturgical year, reminding us of that great tragedy: that many will want to enter into the kingdom of heaven, but it won’t be possible for them.

Today’s passage follows that same trajectory. Ten virgins await the bridegroom’s arrival. They each want to be there and all have the same intention of sharing in the master’s joy. They showed up with lighted lamps. But then comes an unexpected turn of events.

The master is long delayed. All of them without exception fall asleep and their lamps grow dim. Then at some point, the groom arrives. In that moment, the virgins are afforded only the opportunity to trim their lamps so that their flames burn their brightest.

But an impassable difficulty faces some of them. The one defining characteristic that separates the wise from the foolish is that the wise have flasks of oil with them, while the foolish do not. And so, at the awakening, the foolish must depart, while the wise enter into the wedding feast.

Our Lord says that the kingdom of God is like this. The Lord will return when all are asleep, whenever that is. It could be at the end of the life of universe itself—no one knows. It could be trillions of years from now.

Nevertheless, at some point during that long night of silence, the Lord will return at the sound of the trumpet. Think of our second reading today from Saint Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thes. 4:16-17).

We know neither the day nor the hour of God’s return. Many early Christians thought he would return not very long after his ascension to heaven. But without exception, they have all entered into the sleep of death. One day, we too may join their ranks long before Christ’s return.

But then, on the Last Day, we will all awaken. At that time, some will be ready and some may not. Many will intend to welcome him with lamps burning brightly, but will lack the fuel.

The lamps in our parable symbolize the sacraments. Like lamps that bring flame into being, so also the sacraments bring grace into being, which allows us to see the face of God and enter into his presence.

But what does the oil represent? Oil represents what must be consumed in order to become the flame. Oil is sacrificed to give birth to light. The foolish virgins had no oil. In short, they had no sacrifice to offer. That’s the tragedy. They wanted to awaken the flame, but lacked the fuel.

This parable is meant for you and me as a call to action. While we are yet in this world, we are like those virgins in our parable during their awakened hours. While we are awake, there’s still time to acquire fuel.

We already have lamps. Many of us have already received some of the sacraments, which are the vehicles of grace. But have we the oil? You and I can’t share our flasks of oil when the King returns. We must acquire that for ourselves before we enter into the sleep of death.

Today, we’re invited to recommit to the sacraments, and to meditate upon the oil we’re called to sacrifice.

So, what is it that you and I have sacrificed to each sacrament we’ve received? What have we withheld, that in the end, must be consumed to become grace?

Each sacrament is a particular lamp.

In the sacrament of the Mass, for example, bread and wine are sacrificed to become the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Jesus Christ. The bread and the wine cease to be, and only God remains.

In matrimony, a man and woman cease to merely be a man and a woman. They become one flesh. They sacrifice their individual ambitions to give birth to a single destiny from that day forward.

In Holy Orders, a man is sacrificed to become another Christ in the world. He becomes a sacrament of Jesus Christ. He promises to have no children. He is the last of his line.

In baptism, a child is offered back to God. That child is sacrificed—spiritually—by dying in the waters of baptism in order to be reborn in the Spirit as an adopted child of God. All the sacraments involve the necessary sacrifice that must be consumed to summon the divine flame into being.

This should not surprise any of us. This weekend, we honor our veterans who have sacrificed many years in order to give life to many of the freedoms we enjoy. The very symbol of our faith [gesturing to the Cross] teaches us that there is no life without sacrifice. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, says the Lord. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. The Crucifix is our reminder that death is the birthplace of eternal life.

You and I are still awake. In these waking hours, let us call to mind the sacrifices we’ve made or must be willing to make, and recommit to those sacrifices. That’s how we can attempt to keep those flasks close to us, until we fall asleep to this world. The oil we keep will not be wasted. It will burst into flame at the return of the King.

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, by Friedrich Wilhelm Schadow, 1842, Städel Museum, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]


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