We are an impatient people, and the advantages of the electronic age have only exacerbated this. We have fast food, instant replay and news bites. We become anxious when we have to stand in line at a checkout counter, and we complain when a homily is more than 10 minutes long. I know people who will drive around the block rather than wait for the traffic light to change. We just hate to wait.
As we approach the end of the liturgical year, we are reminded that the unfolding of time is in God’s hands. We can neither hurry it nor thwart it. But we must be prepared for its fulfillment, and we will have to wait for the dawning of this fulfillment. The readings for today call our attention to the character of the fulfillment and the manner of our waiting.
We must first ask just what is being fulfilled? The answer is the promises of God. The Bible tells us that God promised the people a secure and prosperous future. The word that encompasses all of these blessings is peace. God promised peace—not merely the absence of war, but a life that includes everything people need to be happy and to thrive.
The history of ancient Israel reveals how human selfishness and treachery seem to impede the fulfillment of this promise. But not even human sinfulness can foil God’s plans, so the people waited anxiously for the time of fulfillment, which came to be known as the endtime. The Greeks have a word for this unique time, kairós. This is a time that stands by itself, a time that is very different from ongoing, ordinary time or chrónos. Wondrous events occur in kairós. God’s promises are fulfilled.
We Christians believe that Jesus inaugurated this time of fulfillment, this kairós. Nonetheless, we still live in the world of ordinary time, in chrónos, and that is part of the challenge facing us. We must live in an extraordinary way in this ordinary time, which believers understand to be the time of fulfillment.
Today’s Gospel employs the metaphor of a marriage celebration to characterize this wondrous time of fulfillment. The virgins are part of the bridal party, and a large party it is. The point of the parable is the necessity of always being prepared, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” All of the virgins were ready for an immediate arrival of the bridegroom and his company, but only half of them were prepared for the long wait.
The reading from Thessalonians shows that the early Christians, and Paul among them, believed that the ascended Jesus would return during their own lifetime and would take them back to heaven with him. The deaths of some of them caused great concern. Had these members been unfaithful in some way and therefore subject to physical death? Or had they all perhaps misunderstood the character of this time of fulfillment? Paul reassured them, and then readjusted his own perception of the endtime. He realized that it would not be just a brief moment, but would endure for some time. How long? No one knows “the day or the time.”
Inaugurated by Jesus, this endtime is now seen as stretching into the future. Like the wise virgins, we must always be prepared, having enough oil to last even until midnight if necessary. We cannot presume that oil will be available for purchase when needed. We cannot live as if the end is already upon us; yet we must live as if the end is imminent. How are we to do this?
The mysterious figure of Woman Wisdom is offered as a guide for such thoughtful living. Though the passage read today is not usually associated with the endtime, it does contain several features found in the Gospel reading—namely, watching through the night, keeping vigil. We are here told that Wisdom will direct us as we live in this complex time.
This Wisdom is much more than practical knowledge or street smarts. She comes from God and is the “perfection of prudence.” To seek Wisdom is to seek God. But the reading states that while we might indeed seek her, “She makes her own rounds, seeking” us. Wisdom seeks us. Our role is to be open to her invitation.
The challenge placed before us today need not be overpowering. We have been invited by God to the celebration of the fulfillment of God’s promise of peace. We now live in an in-between time, a time of already-but-not-yet. We already live in that kairós inaugurated by Jesus, but it is not yet completely fulfilled. As we move through time, we must “stay awake,” always ready, for we do not know when it will be fulfilled. We are not alone in our waiting. We have, as our loyal companion, the Wisdom that comes from God.