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Monday, November 21, 2011

Actualizing the Faith: Homily for the XXXII Sunday of Ordinary Time

Friends, the Gospel reading for the Thirty-Second Sunday of Ordinary Time comes to us from Matthew 25:1-13, and it centers around the familiar parable of the ten virgins awaiting the bridegroom.  Five of them bring enough oil for their lamps, and five of them don’t.  And while the five foolish virgins are off trying to find oil, the Bridegroom comes, and they are not allowed into the wedding feast. 

To understand better the scene that is set before us by Jesus, we first need to understand a bit about ancient Jewish wedding ritual, because Jesus is giving this parable to people who understand very clearly what is going on, and what the significance of these ten virgins is.  First of all, the primary focus of the wedding at this time was not the bride, as it is today, but rather the bridegroom.  On an appointed day, usually at night, the Bridegroom would gather at his home with all of his family and friends, and they would parade through the streets of the village to the home of his betrothed, where she awaits him with all of her family and friends, and her bridesmaids (in this case, the ten).  Upon arrival, the entire wedding party would then process back to the home of the bridegroom (hence the common expression about a bridegroom taking a woman into his home).  Symbolically, upon entering, the couple is married, and it is inside the bridegroom’s home that the wedding ceremony takes place, followed by a great wedding feast.

Now, keep in mind that all of this takes place roughly 1,900 years before the electric light.  Homes were not well-lit as they are today, because oil and candles were expensive.  And there were no street lamps, illuminated shop signs, etc.  Walking through the streets of a village at night was dangerous, and the darkest darkness one could experience.  With no ambient light, the light of the bridesmaids carring lamps was not just decorative.  It was critical to the success of the wedding procession!  So, for the people hearing this parable, their first thought must have been one of astonishment that half of the virgins didn’t bring enough oil.  Because in this context, only a fool would go out without enough oil for a lamp!

The Fathers of the Church, in their commentaries on this Gospel, have a variety of opinions as to the significance of these lamps, and I would like to mention on one such opinion—that of St. Gregory the Great.  He writes that the lamps of the virgins represent the faith of the individual, and the oil is the good works that fuel one’s faith.  But rather than expand upon this, I’d like to offer an alternative, namely that the lamps are the souls of the faithful, and the oil is the Faith itself.  This Faith is what illumines and brightens the human soul, making it more than merely a decorative piece.  And when filled to its capacity, the Faith of the soul shines so bright as to give illumination to others.  This brightness conquers the darkness that, at times, can be so overwhelming as to cause despair and sin.

The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), talks about the need for participation in the Sacred Liturgy that is “full, conscious, and active.”  This is one of the most highjacked and misused phrases in any of the documents of the Ecumenical Council, precisely because of a misconception of the true nature of the word “active.”  In Latin (the language of the Council), there are two words that mean “active,” and there is but a subtle difference between the two.  The first is activa, which means active in the most common sense of doing things with great activity and motion.  Actuosa, on the other hand, is a bit more subtle.  It is where we get the word to actualize, to bring to full potential.  While it still means “in a lively manner” and “full of activity,” the sense of the word is such that it implies more of an interior movement of zeal and passion, rather than simply “doing.”  What the Fathers of the Council were trying to do was exhort the Christian Faithful not to be so overburdened by doing in the Sacred Liturgy that they lose sight of the profound interior movement of the spirit that ought to accompany liturgical action.  How many times have we heard someone suggest that if we don’t sit down, stand up, kneel, raise our arms, sing the hymns, make the responses, etc., that we’re not “actively participating” in the Mass.  But this is precisely the utilitarian understanding of the Mass that the Fathers of the Council wanted to avoid.  It’s not about idly doing, just going through the motions.  There is no meaning in that.  There must be that actuosa, that profound interior movement of the spirit that compels one to act, and to act with great zeal and devotion!
But let’s expand this idea beyond the realm of the Sacred Liturgy, and apply it to the Christian Life in general.  This whole concept of actualized Faith is so intrinsic to living the Gospel in a radical way.  And this is where we touch back with the parable of the ten virgins.  With the oil as the light of Faith, we can see how the lamp (that is, one’s soul) is only brought to its fullest potential, or actualized, through the light of Faith.  And it is crucial that we continue to seek to deepen this interior movement of the Spirit as a means to ensuring that the level of oil in our proverbial lamps remains adequate enough to give us the light to see along the dark path.

Friends, it’s not enough for us merely to use the oil that we have, because the longer and brighter it burns, the more is consumed.  We must carry with us an endless supply (like the five wise virgins) that is only obtained through the grace of the Sacraments and the life of the Church that sustains the Christian believer.  And this Faith, which gives off light, will radiate from us only when our lamps are continually filled.  It shines through us, and illumines the way for others!  But not without that profound interior movement of the Spirit.

May God give us all the grace to seek to actualize our Faith, not merely going through the motions, but actively seeking to participate in the life of the Church in a meaningful way, and to strive to tap into that deep interior movement of the Spirit within us that makes our Faith shine as a light for all we meet!

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