In ancient times, the king had the power of life and death in his kingdom. By the law of the land, a decision was final once the king had pronounced judgment. The king himself could not even change it.
One day, a court jester, who entertained the king and his nobles, said something that upset the king – so much so that the king sentenced the jester to death.
Regretting his rage but unable to change the sentence, the king said to the jester, “I’ll let you choose the way in which you will die.”
After a moment’s thought, the jester replied, “I choose to die … by old age.”
As we near the end of the liturgical year, the liturgies point us in the direction of the “end times.” Jesus told us that we do not know the “day or the hour” of his return, so we should always be alert. One way for us to consider our readiness or vigilance is to reflect on our preparedness for death. We all know that death will come to us at some point (unless, of course, Jesus returns before we die). One question we might ponder over the next few weeks is “how ready am I to go before the Lord?”
The parable of the ten virgins encourages us to reflect on our own vigilance. Obviously, the five virgins who were prepared are the ones to emulate. The bridegroom came in the night, at an unexpected time, yet five of the ten virgins were ready. They wanted to be alert and awake and prepared to meet the bridegroom when he arrived, and they were. The bridegroom was so pleased at their greeting that he invited them into the wedding feast. The five who were unprepared were unhappily excluded from the feast. The parable urges us to be vigilant.
Vigilance has its reward. Heaven is often described in the Scriptures as a “feast” or “banquet” or the “table of the Lord.” When we think of all the wonderful things associated with a feast – rich food, choice drink, great companionship, lively camaraderie, peace, joy, love, just to name a few – it is very attractive. Great things await the faithful who persevere.
Questions regarding the Lord’s second coming, deceased loved ones and death itself were on the minds of the Thessalonians to whom St. Paul writes. In today’s second reading, he deals with the question of loved ones who have died before the Lord’s second coming. He seems to be responding to one of the first pastoral questions the early church had to deal with as it grew: “What happens to loved ones who die before Jesus returns?”
You may recall that even though Jesus told the disciples that they knew “neither the day nor the hour,” there was a general expectation that his return would be soon. Now, some twenty or so years after his resurrection and ascension, he has not returned, and people are concerned about their loved ones who have died. What will happen to them?
St. Paul writes to encourage their hope and enliven their faith. He says, “Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” Then all, the living and deceased, will greet the Lord. These words of Paul that encourage hope also encourage vigilance.
The first reading, taken from the Book of Wisdom, gives us another insight into vigilance. The author writes, “For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care.”
Seeking truth and goodness and righteousness is part of the quest for wisdom. The more this quest is part of our lives, the more vigilant we will be, and the more active will be our discipleship.
Being vigilant for the Lord’s return entails an ongoing and regularly renewed commitment to discipleship – following Jesus along the way, day in and day out, in all our activities and encounters. If our discipleship is important to us and we are committed to the Lord, then we will naturally be ready to greet him when he returns. In that sense, the “when and where” should not matter to us. Vigilance means we are ready whenever and wherever.
A story about St. Francis of Assisi gives us a simple but good illustration. One day Francis was hoeing a garden. One of the brothers approached him and inquired, “Brother Francis, if you knew that tonight at sunset you would die, what would you do now?”
Francis looked up at him and said, “I’d finish hoeing the garden.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.