“Wake up! Wake up!” The words rang in the streets and alleyways of Britain and Ireland in the days of the industrial revolution.
In those days, alarm clocks were not readily available and certainly not affordable to the workers who labored in the growing factories. People employed as “knocker-uppers” would go through the streets where the laborers lived calling for them to wake up. They would knock on windows and doors, calling people to get up and start the day.
These people were indispensable to the workers, for being late for work in those days could easily cause them to be fired and expose their families to poverty. The “wake up call” was a valued and important part of life for these 19th century workers.
In a sense, Jesus is giving us a “wake up” call in Sunday’s gospel. The message is a call to being prepared and vigilant. The theme echoes the liturgies for the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of the new one in Advent. We are encouraged to stay alert and focused on the Lord so we can be properly prepared and ready to meet him when he comes.
Jesus tells us the parable of the 10 virgins. It is a wonderful image based on love. The betrothed long for their bride groom to arrive home. Think of a bride and groom today who await their wedding day. Perhaps think of a time when a spouse, child, loved one or friend has been absent for some time. The longing to see them, to talk with them and just to be with them is strong. It is a desire based on love. Such are the virgins in the parable.
Jesus then tells us that half of the virgins were wise the other half foolish. The difference is based on their readiness to greet the groom when he arrives. The wise ones had extra oil in flasks with them so that should the groom arrive in the night they would be able to see their way to him. In other words, they were prepared. They kept an active vigilance, anticipating the time when he would arrive.
The foolish ones did not and because of this they had to scramble to find some oil for their lamps. Consequently, they missed the arrival and, by the time they got back, the door was locked and they could not enter the feast.
The last words of the parable provide an exhortation for us: “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Keeping vigil is living a life of preparedness for the Lord’s coming. This might be applied to our readiness for death. Death is something we all face. The day or the hour is not for us to decide. In this context, we live life now, not in fear of death, but in readiness for it. This might also be applied to our preparations for the Lord’s return. Similarly, we do not know the day nor the hour for his arrival.
In this context, we live in hopeful anticipation for his coming. At first glance, it might look like the focus is on a future event. However, as we ponder these images and the parable, the focus is on the present, the now. Living life in vigilance is living life in such a way that we are focused on the Lord. Living a good and upright life, seeking good, avoiding evil, loving God and neighbor, seeking truth and living by wisdom, worshiping God through prayer and sacrament are all aspects of our “being ready.”
These are all rooted in faith and love. These are not some distant realities far off in the future. They are to be woven into the fabric of our lives.
The psalmist beautifully expresses in words the longing of the vigilant heart. “O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” The words help us to recognize an important aspect of vigilance which is an awareness of our need of God. The more we recognize our need, the more we are prepared to accept his merciful grace.
The psalmist uses a banquet as the image of God’s munificent blessings: “As with the riches of a banquet my soul shall be satisfied, and with exultant lips my mouth shall praise you.” The longing for this outpouring fills us with hope.
St. Paul, writing to the Thessalonians, assures us that our vigilance is not in vain. Rather, it raises up hope in our hearts. He recalls the bedrock of Christian faith — Jesus’ passion, death and resurrection — as the basis of hope. He writes to a people grieving the loss of loved ones who have passed.
The separation wrought by death is an experience common to all who grieve. For many it is a time of sadness, sorrow and darkness. Paul reminds us that Christian grief has another dimension, which is hope. He writes: “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
Our vigilance for the Lord’s coming helps us to live life full of hope. This hope is like the lamp of the virgins who were prepared to meet the groom, even in the darkness of deep night.
Today we no longer have “knocker-uppers” to wake us in the morning. Most people today probably never even knew they existed at one time. Alarm clocks are helpful and useful. However, many people, as they grow older, get into the habit of waking up at a regular time, that they don’t even need an alarm clock. The goal of vigilance can be likened to this habit.
Living a life in hopeful expectation of the Lord’s arrival gets so woven into our lives that it becomes a normal, regular part of who we are. This is the type of vigilance the Lord is asking us to cultivate as we continue the journey to life.
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.
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