I woke up this morning before dawn, so excited that it is both the 4th Sunday of Advent, and Christmas Eve! I joyfully spent time in prayer, pondering this Sunday’s readings, the magnificent ways in which God works to fulfill His promises for our salvation, and how short sighted and blind we are to all of it. All that is necessary for us is openness and good intentions, and His love, generosity, and providence will do the rest! May His name be blessed forever!
I also, however, prayed about an issue that I know many are struggling with today — that Catholics are “obligated” to go to Mass for the 4th Sunday of Advent, plus Mass for the Nativity of the Lord. For our family, this will mean Mass at 10am this morning, and then the 5pm vigil Mass tonight. I know it’s been discussed on social media over the past several weeks, as people try to figure out how to fit this into their holiday schedule — doesn’t it count to go to Mass once on Christmas Eve? Why twice? There are reports by the Catholic News Agency that explain it, but the language is all about obligation, and I honestly am not interested in obligations. Honestly, if it’s just about “obligations” — ugh. I don’t think any bridegroom would be happy with His bride meeting him out of obligation, do you? How sad, especially one as beautiful, noble, and worthy as our Lord.
In pondering all this, the parable of the 10 virgins came to me very strongly this morning. Obviously, not all of us are joyful about the prospect of 2 Masses today, as I am! And I understand this, I really do. There was a time when I definitely would not have been either. Obviously something in my life changed, drastically. What does it have to do with this parable?
The parable is in Mt 25:1-13, and in brief Jesus describes 10 virgins who went out to wait for the bridegroom to celebrate a wedding feast. Five were wise and brought extra oil in their lamps, and 5 were foolish and did not. (Remember, this was before telephones and modern communications, so they had no idea when he was arriving.) The bridegroom was delayed and they all fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, “The bridegroom is here!” So they all woke up and trimmed their lamps; however, the 5 foolish ones saw that their lamps were going out. “Give us some of your oil,” they said to the 5 wise virgins. The 5 wise virgins said, “No, then we won’t have enough for us and for you. Go purchase your own.” Of course, when the 5 foolish virgins go off to purchase their oil, all the guests go into the banquet, the doors are locked, and they are left behind.
This story is often perplexing, but today it spoke to me deeply. The key to understanding this parable lies in identifying what is the “oil” in the lamps. I propose that the oil is faith, hope, love, and JOY. The theological virtues, which lead to a deep, abiding joy in all of life’s experiences because they are lived with the Lord.
What is faith? Faith is not just assenting or agreeing to a concept, such as that God exists or that Jesus was God, etc. No, even Satan assents to that, does he not? Faith is going way beyond that, faith is trust in God, giving our life to Him, putting all our eggs into that one basket, entering the Kingdom, banking all on Him alone, purchasing the pearl of great price. But, how can we have faith in, or trust in, someone that we do not know? We can’t.
What is hope? Hope is not optimism. Optimism is keeping your chin up, looking on the bright side of things, for the silver lining, putting a smile on your face. It is related to optimism, but faith provides a reason for it, and that reason alone is God. Because really, we have no reason to hope without God. Without God, life has NO meaning. None. We live, we work and toil, and in the end, we die. Death wins in the end. But with Jesus, death has been conquered! So, because of Him, and because of Him alone, we can endure all things, and hope in all things. He is with us — Emmanuel. This is what we celebrate in the Incarnation (Christmas!). But, how can we hope if we do not know Him in whom our hope rests? We cannot.
What is love? Love is to will the good of the other. It is not the world’s definition of love, which is often fleeting, me-based, emotion based, or objectifies others. It is simply wanting what is truly for the eternal, long-term good of the other, and that may or may not have a benefit for us personally. It is seeing and acting with the eyes of Jesus Christ. But how can we truly love if we do not know His Word, and what is important to Him? We cannot.
What is Joy? Joy is not pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting. It comes and goes. Pleasure is often a diversion or entertainment, which is good and fun, but it is not the same as joy. Joy is knowing beyond doubt, because you have experienced it, that heaven has begun, eternal life with Jesus, has already started, and nothing can ever take that from you, no matter what comes. Joy is there through thick and thin, good times and bad, through every experience in life, for the believer. It is based in confidence in Jesus, and in knowing His constant presence. But, how can we have joy, if we have not experienced Him and His saving power in our lives? We cannot.
So this is why the wise virgins say, no, we cannot give you our oil. You must go purchase your own. We simply cannot give someone these gifts. They come from God, actually. BUT, but…we do need to take concrete steps to cultivate them and open ourselves to them. They do not just come on their own. It is fitting that it says the virgins have to “buy” the oil. It will be purchased at a great price for sure. This oil comes at the cost of our time, giving our time to God in prayer, on a regular basis. It comes at the cost of giving over our selfish ways — giving over to His mercy habits that we know are not according to His ways, because they are not good for us. It comes at the cost of humbling ourselves — going before Him in the Sacrament of confession, making a good confession and receiving His unfathomable, inexhaustible mercy and strength to do better, over and over again. It comes at the cost of picking up our cross, day after day, and following Him.
However, know this — what we are giving up, and we perceive to be great sacrifices, are really very small in relation to the immense gifts He wants to pour out on us, if only we will open up those channels of grace. We open the channels of grace through prayer, fasting, and the Sacraments — note, these do not make us holy, but they are the means by which we open ourselves to God, and He can complete His work in us, transforming us into His image, from glory to glory (2 Cor 3:18).
And what are the rewards? First of all — the oil of faith, love, hope, and joy. Living the beatitudes (blessed are you ), taking on the yoke of Christ rather than the yoke of the world, because He gets under it with us, and it’s easy and light. The gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit will flourish and grow within us (love, joy,peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and God’s life will increase in us more and more, and we will be astounded as we watch His plan for our lives unfold. Just as Mary our Blessed Mother was, and still is today, fulfilling her role as the Mother of all God’s children into eternity.
Don’t delay — the bridegroom is coming at an unknown hour! Look around at the world, is the hour perhaps approaching?
Happy 4th Sunday of Advent! Merry Christmas!