It is possible to hear todayâ€™s readings and â€śgrieve as those who have no hope.â€ť It is possible to focus on the locked door, the depleted oil stocks, the dimly burning wicks, and those awful words â€śI do not know youâ€ť â€“â€“ as many surely will today â€“â€“ and be uncertain or even terrified, about our readiness, or the readiness of the loved ones whose absence we mourn, to meet the Lord. It is possible, in fact, to hear every reading of Scripture for the next three Sundays and hear only of Godâ€™s expectations and our deficiencies. It is possible â€“â€“ even probable â€“â€“ for all this to happen whenever the Word of God encounters fearful human hearts, but â€“â€“ God willing â€“â€“ that will not happen today. We do not need the Church or its Lord to scare us to death. Weâ€™ve got Fox News to do that for us. We need the Church and its Lord to encourage us for life, or else we will, as Paul writes, â€śgrieve as those who have no hope.â€ť
Of first importance to say therefore, is that there is a feast ongoing and many, including those we mourn, are already at that feast because, in ways we deem tragic for some and timely for others, the door has been opened and the Bridegroom has welcomed them. They are merely in an adjoining room. More on that later.
Second, what is it that keeps the foolish locked out? Is it some form of un-readiness? Is it the lack of oil?
I must be honest. Ever since Augustine in the Fourth Century, preachers have regularly focused on the oil, or lack thereof. There are sermons on readiness, focusing on everything from morality and ethics, on the one hand, to faith, on the other. There are treatises on the oil, and on whether it symbolizes faith or something else on a laundry list of specific virtues. Augustine, and later Luther, identifies the oil with charity or selfless love. I believe such speculations to be distracting...
What really interests the Bridegroom? The patience persistence of those waiting? Their readiness? Their faith? Is he looking for the oil, or even for the light? Of course not! The Bridegroom is interested in the celebration, and more importantly, in us. What makes five foolish is not their failure, nor the failure of their oil, but rather their refusal to believe that, with or without their oil, the bridegroom wants them at the feast and welcomes them with open arms. The Bridegroomâ€™s focus is on them. In the final analysis â€“â€“ the only analysis that really counts
â€“â€“ the oil, the lamps and whatever else they thought they should have is irrelevant. Yet because that is their focus, they panic and they walk away from the Bridegroom, the party, and, because this is really about the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven, they walk away from Godâ€™s grace.
With Saint Paul, I â€śdo not want you to be uniformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died,â€ť or, for that matter, about any who are dying. When they came to that door for that feast, â€“â€“ when in our own time we come to that door â€“â€“ we are all empty-handed, or, as Luther put it, â€śWe are beggars, that is true.â€ť
What God looks at when that door is opened is not our empty hands but us, the ones God loves. The door is opened and the welcome is enthusiastic. We may, we must, we should grieve, but that sure and certain welcome is not just our hope, it is Godâ€™s indelible promise.
Now about that adjoining room and its door: Many of us have spent the last few weeks waiting and watching and praying for a loved one to die. Waiting like this always puts me into a strange mental state, my emotions are raw and my memories are vivid and random. Last
Monday, as I drove back to the city over the George Washington Bridge I had a flash back to a mass burial service for a group of school children killed in an earthquake that destroyed a public school somewhere, I think, in Turkey or Europe. My mind kept replaying the scene of a little girl, attending this funeral, who kept asking over and over, â€śwhere did they go? I was just sitting next to them.â€ť I heard no answer.
Yet there is an answer. They are in the Lambâ€™s banquet hall, and itâ€™s an adjoining room. We go there frequently. We join them, whether we know it or not, for one brief shining moment at every Eucharistic feast. At that moment, we still sit next to them, and they, next to us.
In her Pulitzer-prize winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard reflects this way on the mystery of death:
I think that the dying pray at the last, not â€śplease,â€ť but â€śthank you,â€ť as a guest thanks his host at the door. Falling from airplanes, the people are crying â€śthank you, thank you,â€ť all down the air; and the cold carriages draw up for them on the rocks. Divinity is not playful. The universe was not made in jest but in solemn,
incomprehensible earnest. By a power that is unfathomably secret, and holy, and fleet. There is nothing to be done about it, but ignore it, or see. And then you walk fearlessly, eating what you must, growing wherever you can, like a monk on the road who knows precisely how vulnerable he is, who takes no comfort among death-forgetting men, and who carries his vision of vastness and might around in his tunic like a live coal, which neither burns nor warms him, but with which he will not part.(1)
And so we say â€śthank-you,â€ť and walk fearlessly, eating what we must, growing where we can, grieving and living, but not as those who have no hope.
Amandus J. Derr
Saint Peterâ€™s Church
In the City of New York
(1) Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (New York: Harper, 1974) 270