Then the kingdom of heaven shall be compared to ten maidens who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Behold the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those maidens rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “Perhaps there will not be enough for us and for you; go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.” And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast; and the door was shut. Afterward the other maidens came also, saying “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Matthew 25: 1-13
The Scripture passage for this reflection is the well-known parable of the ten maidens. When I was a child and my parents were trying to impress upon us the importance of sharing, I always thought that the wise maidens were actually mean maidens because they wouldn’t share their oil. As I have come to understand the meaning of this parable, the oil in the flasks is faith. Faith is something that we can share with others in the sense that we can talk about it with others. But we can’t take our faith and divide it up with others, the way we can divide money or food. Faith is something that is deeply personal. Either we have it or we don’t.
In the parable, the five wise maidens had extra oil for their lamps. They were ready for whenever the bridegroom came. When the bridegroom was late, they slumbered and slept, soundly, knowing that when he came, there would be enough oil to trim their lamps. The foolish maidens had some oil but they “wagered” so to speak that the bridegroom would be on time, that they would have enough oil. When the bridegroom was late, they also fell asleep. However, when the bridegroom suddenly came in the middle of the night, they found themselves unprepared, without enough oil in their lamps. They pleaded with the wise maidens for them to share their oil, their faith, but it didn’t work like that. What the wise maidens had could not be shared. When the bridegroom came, those who were prepared went to the marriage feast. When those who had not been prepared showed up later, it was too late. They were shut out of the marriage feast. In fact, the bridegroom denied even knowing them. The lesson here, is that we do not know the day nor the hour when the bridegroom is coming, when God will call us to His heavenly Kingdom. We can wager that it won’t be this year because we are young. We can wager that we’ve done enough even though deep down we know we might not have enough faith. Or we can be like the wise maidens, growing in our faith, so that even if the bridegroom catches us sleeping, or comes at an hour we don’t expect, that we are ready to meet him.
How does this play out on a practical level? Here are some facts. We do not know when we are going to die. I am 51 as I write this message. Will I see 52, or 60 or 80? God knows that. What will be the circumstances of my physical death? God knows that. It might be an accident, or a sudden onset of disease, or a disease that lingers for years. God knows that. I’m not afraid to die. To be honest, I’m afraid of the dying process—I’m afraid of pain, needles, hospitals, etc. I hope that will not be in my future, but then only God knows that. I hope that if these things are in my future, I will have the grace and strength I have seen in so many people who have faced medical crises at the end of their lives.
Here is why I am not afraid to die. Because I know how to prepare for death little by little. I am preparing for my eventual death. That is not fatalistic. It is real though. I go to confession at least once a year. I own up for my sins. I remember asking a priest many years ago how we reconcile “have no further anxiety about the sins you’ve confessed” (from the prayer of absolution) with the idea that there will be no secrets before the judgment seat of Christ. Luke 8:17 says, “For nothing is hid that shall not be made manifest, not anything secret that shall not be known and come to light.” Yet in John 20:23, Jesus gives the disciples the power and responsibility to loose and forgive sins. The priest I spoke with years ago said “If something is confessed, it is no longer a secret. Only the hidden things will be revealed.” Thus, I go to confession at least once a year to reveal my spiritual secrets and struggles and to be loosed of the guilt and shame of these sins. Therefore, at a given moment, I never have more than a year’s worth of sins to answer for. At confession, I also talk about my faith with another priest, I ask my questions about faith, I recommit to living the faith. On a yearly basis, I try to give generously of time, talent and treasure back to God and to the church. Like the maidens who were smart in stocking away some oil, I’d like to think I’m building up my faith, so that whenever Christ comes, I’m ready for eternal life.
Many people do not want to talk about death. We’ll hear more about that in the next reflection. Many people as they get older do not want to talk to their children about it. Many children feel uncomfortable addressing this with their parents. And a vicious cycle of fear ensues. We remain afraid of the unknown. Parents are afraid of death. Children are afraid because they haven’t discussed anything with their parents. It is important to gently have these conversations, to make arrangements, to discuss wishes on both sides—parents and their children. Practical decisions like a living will, a power of attorney and a DRN (do not resuscitate order) will help make sure that an older person expresses their wishes and those wishes are followed, and will help their families know what their wishes are. I can’t tell you how many people do not make plans and then children are arguing with one another about what should be done with their parents. I encourage you to have those conversations.
It is important in our journey to salvation that we be intentional, purposeful and careful. That means taking time to learn, to soberly reflect, to repent of sinful habits, to confess our sins and to be open to spiritual guidance. Years ago, I knew a woman named Stella. Stella had been widow for several years. She lived independently until her last couple of years. On the day she turned 90, she made an appointment to come in and see me for confession. I don’t remember anything she confessed, only that she led off the conversation with “I’m here to square things up with God. I’m 90 and I want to make a confession and then live in peace.” Stella lived a couple of years after that. She moved to an assisted living facility because she was declining and could no longer live independently. I visited her one year on December 23. She was declining and she knew she didn’t have much longer to live. We had what we knew was going to be our last conversation. I asked her if she needed anything from me, if she wanted to go to confession, or if there was anything she needed to do spiritually before she passed. She said to me “Remember, Father, when I turned 90 and I came to see you for confession (she was mentally sharp as a tack, all the way to the end), I squared it up with God that day, and I live in peace, that whenever He is ready for me, I am ready for Him.” I asked her what she wanted for Christmas and she said “I want to see my husband, I miss him.” As I turned to leave, she said to me “You know Father, I have a DNR, make sure everyone knows that.” I said “I’m sure they do.” She said it again, “make sure they know I have a DNR, and have a Merry Christmas.” Stella passed away on December 25. She was ready.
I think about the peace she must have felt, to have made amends with God, to have repented from sin. It must be like the wise maidens who fell asleep, knowing there was enough oil to fill their lamps whenever the bridegroom came. It would certainly be in the interest of our seniors to have these spiritual talks with a priest, to ready their lamps to meet the bridegroom. It would certainly be in the interest of everyone to have talks with our loved ones about death—what it means, arrangements, etc. However, it would also be in the interest of EVERYONE at every age to have these spiritual talks, confession, repentance and get questions answered because the end of life could come at any time for anyone, and this way, we can rest easy, knowing that the lamp is filled with the oil of faith, so that if the bridegroom happens to come today, since we know neither the day nor the hour, we are ready for the marriage feast.
There is a popular country song by Tim McGraw entitled “Live Like You Were Dying.” It’s about a person in his early 40’s that is diagnosed with cancer and how it changed his life. His reaction “I went sky diving, I went Rocky Mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu, and I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I’d been denyin’; and he said “Some day I hope you get the chance to live like you were dyin’.” Hopefully it doesn’t take a cancer diagnoses to get us to be intentional, purposeful and careful with our spirituality, or to take stock of the oil in our lamps. To love deeper, to offer forgiveness, to make personal repentance, to serve and to enjoy God’s world should be something for us to do all the time.
Thy hands have made and fashioned me; give me understanding that I may learn Thy commandments. Those who fear Thee shall see me and rejoice, because I have hoped in Thy word. I know, O Lord, that Thy judgments are right, and that in faithfulness Thou hast afflicted me. Let Thy steadfast love be ready to comfort me according to Thy promise to Thy servant. Let Thy mercy come to me, that I may live; for Thy law is my delight. Let the godless be put to shame, because they have subverted me with guile; as for me, I will meditate on Thy precepts. Let those who fear Thee turn to me, that they may know Thy testimonies. May my heart be blameless in Thy statutes, that I may not be put to shame! Psalm 119:73-80
Live like you were dying! Make sure there is always enough oil (faith) in your lamp (soul)!