Is the lamp of our soul alight with the oil of virtue? Or has it gone out, due to tepidity? If it has, on the day of Judgement, the Divine Bridegroom will declare that He does not know us!
Gospel of Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus told His disciples this parable: 1 “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, 4 but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. 5 Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. 6 At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. 8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ 10 While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. 11 Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ 12 But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:1-13).
I – The Major Social Festivity of the Chosen People
The Liturgy of the Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time presents the famous parable of the ten virgins who go out to meet the bridegroom, composed by Our Lord within the context of His eschatological discourse. This story was readily comprehensible to His listeners – in this case, His disciples – since it unfolded around a cherished tradition of the time: the wedding ceremony. Our present-day protocol is so different that it can be difficult for us to capture the deeper significance of the Divine Teacher’s narrative.
Since the Gospels are the Word of God, they encompass all historical eras. It is helpful, then, for us to review these ancient customs, in order to understand Our Lord’s language, and derive from it the application relevant to us.
A family contract sealed with joyful splendour
Weddings were the main social celebration in the lives of the Chosen People in the Old Testament. Before the wedding, the families of both parties would agree on the conditions of the marriage, particularly the quantity of the mohar, a sum of money that the young man would give to the girl’s father. Then the betrothal was celebrated, by which the couple were promised to each other; and finally, as the culmination of negotiations between the relatives, the wedding date was set, often well in advance. Only then would the definitive agreement be formalized by written contract.1
The institution of the family was highly revered and more solidly structured than it is today, for it retained characteristics of the patriarchal age, in which the father played the role of a small-scale head of state, with power over all those under his protection and authority. It is thus understandable that the establishment of a new home was an event surrounded by joy and festive pomp, lasting for seven days and even continuing for up to two weeks.
Nuptial cortege of the bride and bridegroom’s friends
One unique aspect of this ceremony was that it began at twilight, as the sun was emitting its last rays. The bridegroom would proceed toward the bride’s house, escorted by his friends and decked out like a king, with a crown upon his head and all the lavishness within his means. To increase the magnificence of the occasion, the friends of the bride, also virgins, would join her in awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom, who would then lead her in joyful procession to his house.2 There, the banquet would begin, and the blessings would be pronounced by the father of one of the betrothed or by a distinguished guest. It is possible that, at the wedding in Cana, Jesus was the guest of honour who blessed the couple. Naturally, the young friends of the future wife also took part in the banquet as guests of special esteem and consideration.
To make their way through the streets at night in the wedding procession, the virgins and the other participants in the event used the means of lighting available at that time: torches or lamps. Without artificial electric lighting, nightfall brought on pitch darkness, making it impossible to get around safely. Lamps such as Our Lord mentions were used to light the way. These were typically fashioned of earthenware and fuelled with oil or resin. As they were not very large, the fuel did not last long, and if the journey was lengthy, it was necessary to carry an extra supply of oil.
It is also relevant to remember that matches and gas lighters had not yet been invented. Fire starting was a matter of skill and patience: two stones were struck together until a spark was created to ignite the wick or some other flammable material. Indeed, it was such an onerous chore that lamps were customarily kept alight, or embers were kept alive on the hearth for starting fires quickly. Letting the flame die out was irksome, for re-lighting it was no simple task. Vigilance was imperative for ensuring that one’s lamp always contained enough oil…
Jesus took this everyday reality of life in Israel, and applied it in a parable with an unsurpassable didactic method, combining the factual aspects, as described above, with fictitious details. However, in adding these particulars, such as the virgins waiting for the bridegroom until midnight – a delay that would never have actually occurred – the Divine Teacher stimulated the interest and imagination of the listeners, so that they would better grasp the moral lesson He wished to convey.
II – Ten Virgins: the Bodily and the Spiritual Senses
Jesus told His disciples this parable: 1 “The Kingdom of Heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3 The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, 4 but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps.”
There was not a fixed number of friends who could accompany the bride at the wedding; they could be as many as she chose. In this parable, then, what deeper meaning did Our Lord wish to convey, by making them five wise virgins and five foolish virgins?3
The Church Fathers suggest an explanation that is helpful for our spiritual life: “The five wise virgins and five foolish” – St. Jerome declares – “may be interpreted as the five senses, some of which hasten towards the heavenly homeland and desire higher things, and others of which, in their avid craving for the mire of the earth, lack the impetus of the truth to illuminate the heart. Of sight, hearing and touch, it has been said in a spiritual sense: ‘That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and touched with our hands’ (1 Jn 1:1); of the sense of taste: ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Ps 34:9); and of smell, ‘Your anointing oils are fragrant’ (Sg 1:3); and moreover: ‘we are the aroma of Christ’”(2 Cor 2:15).4
We possess five physical senses: touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. However, each of these has its counterpart in the soul, as Scripture itself so eloquently attests. Thus we may live in accordance with either the five carnal or the five spiritual senses. Those who act according to the first, using them for evil, busy themselves with gratifying their vanity, selfishness, and curiosity, frantically calling attention to themselves and comparing themselves with others; in short, satisfying their passions. However, those who proceed in accord with the spiritual senses are constantly turned toward their ideal and their vocation, mindful, above all, of Who called them: God!
Nevertheless, to guide these senses in uprightness, there must be oil in abundance, oil to spare… In effect, this oil signifies equipping oneself to keep one’s sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch attuned toward the supernatural, with the attention fixed on the Bridegroom who will arrive, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
This was the conduct of the five wise virgins who brought a supply of oil; that is, they strengthened their vigilance against any possible fall, taking all measures to avoid near occasions of sin.
The foolish virgins, an image of tepid souls
At the opposite extreme is the behaviour of the foolish virgins. Note that they did not go to the banquet without any oil, but they brought only a meagre quantity, for they did not want to carry a flask. They thought that a little would suffice, for, surely the bridegroom would not delay… And if they should happen to run out, they would only need to help themselves to some of their companions’ stock.
This is a fitting image of tepid souls – the mediocre – whose awareness is absorbed by that which is material, concrete, human. They prefer halfway measures; they are self-satisfied, and consider any progress in virtue to be excessive. They justify their faults with the fact of having been conceived in original sin, and overlook that the Divine Redeemer has obtained superabundant grace for our sanctification. In this way, they create the illusion that an insignificant effort is enough to gain them entry to Heaven. Eternal bliss, however, is not won by halfway measures! “You are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of My mouth” (Rv 3:15-16).
The dynamics of the spiritual life can be compared to an escalator with a peculiar feature: we must climb the stairs as they descend. This image represents our evil inclinations, as fallen human nature always pulls us downward. If we climb the stairs at the same speed with which they are descending, we will remain in the same place. The escalator of the spiritual life has, in addition, this singularity: if we try to match its speed, it quickens the pace, so that if we do not outdo the escalator’s speed we will soon be carried down to the starting point. But if we climb faster, we will pull ahead and will surely reach the top!
Human nature demands rest, yet we must not lose our watchfulness
5 “Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.”
It could happen, that, on occasion the bridegroom take a little longer than expected. But here, Our Lord is speaking of an exorbitant delay, which makes an intentional exaggeration evident. Indeed, the bridegroom was so tardy that the virgins succumbed to drowsiness and fell asleep.
This parable, in its wise and gentle way, does not decry the fact that all of them slept, but only, as we shall see, the imprudence of the five foolish ones. In fact, there are moments when we believe ourselves ready to receive the Bridegroom, but He does not arrive immediately. Then a long wait is required of us, until He appears.
Such a situation is not bad in itself; in fact, it can even serve for our formation. Everyone experiences periods of aridity, both the fervent and those bogged down in mediocrity. The senses become dull, and the dark night clouds the vision toward which our Christian vocation calls us. Not infrequently, this occurs as death approaches, and oddly enough, to the Saints. St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, among many others, endured terrible spiritual aridity in her final days.
There is yet another symbolism in the sleepiness of the ten virgins. Given our state of contingency, it is impossible, except by an extraordinary effect of grace, for us to keep our attention from being drawn to the manifold realities of life. There are times when we are unable to lift our minds to the highest supernatural horizons, and then we doze off momentarily – that is, we focus on the material aspects of life such as health, food or financial needs. But when we do this, we must always have a store of oil on hand, which is a symbol of a sound interior life, with much vigilance, so that when the concrete need has been taken care of, we may once again raise our sights to heavenly things.
But how often do we doze off to the point of falling into a deep sleep, forgetting the paramount importance of our oil supply… We abandon our exercises of piety, we neglect prayer, fail to flee from occasions of sin, going from one spiritual negligence to another, until the Bridegroom unexpectedly appears! No human strength can maintain us in the practice of virtue. We need a good provision of oil: plenty of watchfulness and prayer, for without the power of the Holy Spirit, no creature is preserved in the state of grace.
6 “At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ 7 Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps.”
If the wedding was to take place at sunset, and the bridegroom appeared only at midnight, the ten maidens waited for several hours; hence their oil was running low. The five wise ones quickly trimmed their lamps, replenishing them from the flask of oil that they had brought, and so were able to welcome the bridegroom and continue the rest of the route with him.
The illusion of changing our life when the Bridegroom arrives
8 “The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise ones replied, ‘No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’”
The foolish virgins realized that their oil had almost run dry, and asked the wise for some of theirs. The latter declined to give them any, and this attitude did not imply selfishness, for they were within their rights to avail themselves of the oil that they had been prudent enough to bring. So they sent their senseless companions off to buy their own. But how were they to find a seller at that hour of the night? It was an unheard-of predicament. To knock at a merchant’s door so late, especially in those times, would be futile. At best, he would tell them to come back the next morning.
The improvident virgins failed, while the provident ones succeeded, in part for not having divided their oil with those who had requested it. Let us consider, then, the reason for the refusal of the prudent. Merits are not transferable from one person to another; souls are required to obtain their own, and watch over their own spiritual life. When our time comes to appear before God, it will impossible for us to borrow from another who was more judicious. Indeed, “the virtues of one cannot remedy the defects of others.”5 At that hour, one either has what is required, or not! St. John Chrysostom reminds us of this, quite plainly: “What lesson should we take from this? In the next life, those who lack good works cannot be helped by anyone, not because no one wants to help, but because it is impossible for them to do so. Truly, the foolish virgins sought refuge in the impossible.”6
On our final day, there will be no more time to change, unless a striking and efficacious grace is granted, because we are not capable of changing our conduct in the blink of an eye, or recovering all that should have been accomplished over a lifetime. Therefore, faced with the imminence of death, we will react according to habit. If we have no store of oil, we will not be able to obtain any after we awaken, try as we might, for one dies as one has lived. It is night, there are no shops open… How many plans bank on illusion: “God is good! He will certainly give me notice before calling me, and in the end, I will be repent, pray a little, and with one absolution, everything will resolved!” Which of us knows the circumstances in which death will come upon us? Who can guarantee that a priest will be available to administer the Last Sacraments?
Tepid souls seek solace in sin
10 “While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked.”
The foolish virgins set out to buy oil. What does this mean? When we distance ourselves from the Bridegroom, we seek the consolations of the world. Those who are vitiated with earthly delights do not seek solace in Jesus, but in that to which they are accustomed. How can they later stand before God with a clear conscience? In this vein, St. Augustine ponders: “It should not be imagined that they [the wise] give them counsel, but that they remind them, indirectly, of their lacking. For the sellers of oil are the flatterers who, praising what is false or unknown, lead souls into error […]. When they were inclined to exterior things and sought to entertain themselves in their customary pleasures, having no taste for interior joys, He who judges arrived.”7
The wise virgins, in contrast, had plenty of the oil of virtue, practised with enthusiasm, fortitude, generosity, and detachment. With the senses of their soul fixed on the supernatural, they were able to join the bridegroom in the banquet hall.
If we do not have enough oil, the Bridegroom will disown us
11 “Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ 12 But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’”
For a more complete understanding of the gravity of our Lord’s teaching in this parable, we should be aware that, in the language of that time, to say that one did “not know” someone carried a different connotation than it does today. In modern usage, this denotes not being acquainted with a person. But at that time, the population of cities was very small, compared with that of current ones, and, especially in a village, everyone was acquainted with everyone else. The expression “I do not know you” was tantamount to calling the other an alien and sending him away. It was, therefore, a repudiation, an affront. “What is the meaning of “I do not know you?” asks St. Augustine. “You have my disapproval, my rejection. I do not know you because you are incompatible with my ways; my ways do not know vice. What an admirable thing, to not know vice and yet to judge it.”8 Thus, the words of the bridegroom reflect the sentence of the divine Judge, which the reprobates will hear on that great day: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire” (Mt 25:41).
The virginal state of those unhappy maidens did not gain them the right to enter the banquet, for corporal virginity loses its value when it is wanting in the soul, as St. Jerome’s affirms: “The Lord does not know them who practise iniquity, even if they are virgins, [… ] they are proud of their bodily purity and of their confession of the true faith. Nevertheless, because they do not have the oil of wisdom, as a befitting punishment, the Bridegroom does not know them.”9
We, too, must have oil in our lamps on a daily basis, that is, we should cultivate our spiritual life, be ever prayerful, receive Communion frequently and confess regularly. Even without having grave matter for self-accusation, it is improvident not to approach the tribunal of Penance. There, abundant graces are poured into the soul that are only received in this Sacrament, even when there is no need to recover the state of grace. In this instance, penitents should mention their past faults at least in general terms, so as to receive absolution. This is what moved various saints, such as St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Charles Borromeo, to confess daily. Some, like St. Francis Borgia and St. Leonard of Port Maurice, would do so twice a day.10
Our works will be known by all
Some deceive themselves, imagining that they sin in secret, hidden from human eyes. However, in light of the Final Judgment, the notion of being alone is not realistic. And if we tend to think that this great and terrible day will only come after so many centuries that no one will remember us, we should convince ourselves, instead, of how grave an occasion it will be, for then, by divine power, everyone will recall not only the totality of their own actions, but will also know all the deeds of others.11 God, before Whom all is present – since, for Him, there is no past or future – will transfer, so to speak, a knowledge of the merits and demerits of each person to our understanding, unable on its own to encompass such immensity. This knowledge will not fade, so that the Saints and Angels of Heaven, as well as the condemned in hell, will conserve it eternally.
The value of vigilance
13 “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
Finally, Our Lord concludes the parable by making it clear that His intention in elaborating it was to urge us to vigilance. After announcing to His disciples the last events and His glorious return, He warned: “Watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Lk 21:36). And just before beginning His Passion, in the Agony in the Garden of Olives, He counselled once again: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Mt 26:41).
We often pray not to fall into temptation, and perhaps in all earnest. But this alone is not enough, for it is necessary to be watchful. Watching is just as important as praying, for if we are vigilant, we will avoid near occasions of sin, thereby guarding ourselves against possible falls. To watch, therefore, means keeping one’s eyes open so that the lower senses do not drag us down, but, rather, help to lift us up to God, to admire His reflections in creation. The beauty of a rose, a delicate fabric, a pleasant fragrance, a harmonious piece of music, or even a well-prepared dish are things that can elevate the soul.
Here is an evangelical inspiration for a good examination of conscience: How do I conduct myself in such matters? Do my five carnal senses dominate the spiritual senses? What circumstances lead me to sin? Harmful companionship? I must sever the relationship. An indecent television program? I must not watch it. Certain internet sites? I will avoid them at all cost. If vigilance demands that I pluck out an eye or cut off a hand, as our Lord says figuratively (cf. Mt 5:29-30), it is vital that I do so, for it is better to enter Heaven maimed, lame or blind, than be thrown into the eternal fire with all members intact (cf. Mt 18:8-9).
One sure prophecy: our death
Let us not leave for tomorrow what can be done today, because we may be judged this very night! One prophecy that is absolutely certain is that we will all die, although no one knows the day or the hour. Even a sick person at death’s door does not know the exact moment at which death will overtake him. Who would dare make the promise of waking up tomorrow? Who could even venture to guarantee finishing the reading of this article? We are destined to die, and this perspective helps to free us of attachments and pull ourselves out of the wrong way we have taken. To enter the paths of iniquity is sheer folly, for there is nothing on earth more adverse to God than sin. Moreover, this puts us at the risk of coming face to face with the righteous Judge when we least expect it (cf. Mt 24:44, 50; Lk 12:46), with our hands empty and our lamps burnt out. Then He will declare that He does not know us!
Let us ask Our Lord Jesus Christ, through the intercession of Mary Most Holy, for the grace of being truly vigilant in our thoughts, desires and deeds, aiming at holiness at every moment. In this way, our lamps will never run out of oil… ◊