This is a thought-provoking time of the liturgical year. On the 1st November, we kept All Saints. On the 2nd All Souls. And throughout this month – today too as Remembrance Sunday – we are thinking of all the departed, known and unknown, and of how we can pray for them. On the horizon is the Solemnity of Christ the King (22nd) and then we slip into Advent (evening of 28th). With those things, and with today’s readings, another element emerges: the coming of Christ. We are obviously being invited to look beyond the immediate and be sensitive to what Catholic tradition calls “the last things”.
It is an article of our faith that the Lord will come again. He will come in glory. He will come to judge the living and the dead, separating goats and sheep. He will come to transfigure our human bodies and the whole universe, and hand over a universal kingdom to his Father. These are “big thoughts”. The New Testament is full of them and the Creeds re-echo them. And every Mass mysteriously contains them. Christ comes sacramentally, anticipating the Parousia.
Here’s a theme for today: Christ is the God who comes. The readings unpack this.
In the 1st reading, from the Old Testament, Christ comes as Wisdom. It’s described beautifully. Wisdom is described almost as a person, an independent agent, one with God and yet distinct from God. She shows herself to those who are looking for her. She is looking for us herself . She walks around. She shows herself as we follow our path through life, “in every thought of theirs coming to meet them.” So, already now, in our daily life, even in what goes on in our heads, Christ comes. He meets us. This is worth dwelling on. I can remember as a boy watching a game. And I suddenly realised: here’s this game going on, I am watching it and I can think about it, I can put it into words. And it came to me, how wonderful! We don’t just see things or undergo them. We can think about them. Then comes this line from Wisdom: how she comes to meet us in our every thought. We can meet God in what we think. Our thinking is a kind of sacrament. Over the centuries, the spiritual tradition of the Church has elaborated criteria for judging which kind of thought is outside Christ, incompatible with him, which are neutral and which are from Christ or with Christ. It’s the tradition of the discernment of spirits or thoughts. If, broadly speaking, a thought is of something good; even if initially disconcerting, it ultimately brings peace, makes for humility and patience, lifts us up, brings joy perhaps, makes us feel well-disposed towards others, not dark or bitter or anti or self-pitying, then it is a coming of Christ. It is something to be cherished, to be turned to prayer or put into practice. And so, the daily workings of our mind, are a place Christ meets us. “You will find her / Wisdom sitting at your gates.” The Bridegroom is coming. Open the doors.
So, to the Gospel. It’s full of intriguing things. Let’s just focus on one. All the girls in the parable – and they are us of course – all the girls whether they have oil or not – fall asleep. It’s night-time; it’s dark; it’s this life. Of course, when we are asleep, we are somewhere else, slumberland, dreamland. Then suddenly, when we are far gone, lost in our own world, there is a cry. It comes from nowhere. Who cries? We’re never told. There’s just this sudden voice. We might remember how John the Baptist described himself as “a voice crying in the wilderness.” Here it’s a voice in the night. It wakes the girls up. Panic ensues. Their hair’s a mess. There’s scramble and squabble over the oil. “The Bridegroom is coming!” This is certainly a parable! So often, we are in our own world, full of our own plans (not necessarily bad at all). But a cry – not the Bridegroom himself notice, but a cry – breaks in on it. Think of Covid. Think of those heart-breaking scenes in 1st World War films when the postman comes on his bike with the dreaded telegram: your son has died on the Western Front. Think of unexpected diagnoses, job-loss. And of joyful things too: a new relationship, a child, a new task. These are the surprising voices in our lives, the wake-up calls. The 2nd reading is explicitly about the second coming. But there’s the same pattern: a trumpet is blown, an archangel cries out. And then, after that, the Lord, the Bridegroom comes. The Lord comes like a burglar, he says somewhere. He comes on the heels of always unexpected, sometimes contrary, inexplicable things.
Christ is the God who comes. He comes, though, please note, to “take us up”, says St Paul, to raise us from the dead, to take us to a wedding feast, to bring us joy and perhaps first of all just safety, “the everlasting arms”.
Can I suggest a spiritual exercise? To re-read one’s life in the light of the Christ who comes. Our life is a string of events, good, bad and indifferent. But going deeper, it’s a series of calls and comings, of cries in the night, of trumpets and angels waking us up: all – if we respond trustingly and simply (maybe that’s the crucial oil) – all leading us to joy. Amen.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)