The 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The end of the liturgical year accents waiting and keeping watch for the return of Christ and the end of time. The new year that begins with Advent stresses waiting and watching…for the coming of Christ at his birth.
All of today’s readings highlight different aspects of vigilance and keeping watch.
The Book of Wisdom speaks of those who “watch at dawn” for Wisdom, and how she anticipates those “who keep vigil for her sake” and graciously seeks them out. Our vigilance invites the always greater vigilance of wisdom, then.
The psalm (63) speaks of the element of yearning in watchfulness: “for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts, like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.”
Paul speaks of vigilance regarding our approaching death. All of these dimensions of watching blend together: out of love for wisdom, we listen and try to stay attuned to all the ways that life is trying to wake us up.
We yearn for God and cultivate our desire for him, our deepest heart’s desire, and the only one that can ultimately satisfy. We look to him also in light of our poverty and approaching death, as mortal, needy, vulnerable creatures.
All of this provides the context for Jesus’ parable about the wise and foolish virgins keeping watch for the return of the Bridegroom.
The moral of the story is given as “Therefore stay awake for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Of course, both the wise and foolish virgins fall asleep…
Presumably, if they’d kept awake they could have conserved oil and not run out. Perhaps the wise virgins are wise because they knew that despite their best efforts they might well fall asleep, so they brought along a reserve of oil just in case.
Perhaps the foolish virgins imagined they were strong enough to resist sleep…So wisdom here would be the wisdom of knowing our weakness and making provision for it.
St Bernard touches on this parable in his magnificent Sermon 18 On the Song of Songs. He speaks of gifts the Spirit gives us for our own salvation and those he gives us for the building up of the wider community.
We need to first cultivate our own inner life, prayer, reading, an attitude of constant wakefulness so that this wealth can naturally overflow to others from our abundance.
You can do a lot for another person but you can’t do their inner work for them—so the wise virgins cannot really share their oil, even if they want to, as we can’t cultivate prayer or deepen conversion for someone else.
We can relate this discussion of watchfulness here to what the desert tradition speaks of as nepsis.: the attention or wakefulness that undergirds and supports prayer, and in some sense IS prayer itself.
We need to cultivate attentiveness and keep watch through the day so that we’re aware when our lamp starts to flicker and we slip towards reactivity, prejudice or craving.
An attentive presence is the best gift we can bring to others. Simone Weil wrote: “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
In the words of Kallistos Ware: “Watchfulness means, among other things, to be present where we are—at this specific point in space, at this particular moment in time. All too often we are scattered and dispersed, we are living, not with alertness in the present, but with nostalgia in the past, or with misgiving and wishful thinking in the future… The neptic man, then, is gathered into the here and the now. He is the one who seizes the kairos, the decisive moment of opportunity.”
In the Eucharist we receive a share in Jesus’ own watchfulness—“We have the mind of Christ”—strengthened by that grace may we keep awake and alert to the sacrament of the present moment.