Mass readings for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Wisdom 6.12-16 Psalm 63.1-7 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18 Matthew 25.1-13
I had prepared a homily Friday afternoon for today, but after attending the Remembrance Day service at the cenotaph, I found myself prompted to revisit my remarks and look over them in light of things raised in my heart and mind by what I saw and experienced Saturday morning.
To begin with, the theme that is so apparent in our scriptures today is that of wisdom.
Wisdom is a virtue, a gift of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus tells us, its indispensable to our salvation – the wise bridesmaids get into the wedding, not the fools.
By wisdom we discern the truth of things, or at least the exercise of wisdom tells us what is false and we need to continue looking for the truth.
And knowing either the truth, or again, when something is not true is needed now when we see so many different, competing narratives about the world, different understandings of history, conflicting versions of history that contradict as groups and factions and movements compete for our support by saying, “this is the true history, this is the way to understand, and now, this is what we must do.” The support they want comes in votes for politicians and parties friendly to their causes, its donations of money to fund their causes, for our voices in gatherings of protest, for our signatures on petitions, for our quiet ascent to changes being made in how we think and act as a community.
What I detect today among our leaders, right down to those who run our Legion halls, our girl guide troops, and other community organizations that draw their membership from the diverse local population, and yes, our faith communities, and the Church, is that there is a tremendous pressure to change the stories, the narratives, the history that is taught so as to form us into something other than what we have been as a community here in Dundas, and as a nation. To move away from our Judeo-Christian heritage and to a new understanding of human relationships. From our equality before God as sinners in need of redemption (and so, that means being critical in our learning of history), to a collection of communities differentiated according to race and creed, and a constantly expanding list of characteristics along which we may define and divide ourselves. But the principal division being that between oppressor and oppressed. And in that division, those who claim to be oppressed get to decide what the stories will be, what the history is, and then dictate the consequences to the rest.
This plays so directly upon our Christian faith’s call to defend the weak and fight for justice; the very motive that animated whole generations of Canadians to serve in the armed forces in fights against fascism and communism. By this clever device we can be fooled into adopting ideas and making decisions that ultimately will take us away from God and leave us in the darkness, without lamp or oil.
I’m not looking to call out the legion padre, I can well sympathize with the pressures that must have come to bear on him, especially this year with the ban on prayer in the armed forces chaplaincy. And again, his likely instinct is to be that good person, that faithful servant of Christ who is to help in the sacred cause of reconciliation within the human family. So, while the armed forces ban on public prayer does not apply to the Legion, the powerful cue has been given to us all, but especially those who hold any spiritual authority, to cut it out, and to instead offer sentiments of national pride, of collective remembrance, to even be topical in one’s remarks, all while avoiding the act of prayer. And that’s what he did. If you were there, you might not have noticed how little was offered in the way of actual prayer, and that was only a closing benediction that did not invoke God. He did say, “God save the King.”
And in his remarks though, by way of an apology for prayer, he put forward a grave error: in trying to justify prayer in a public setting, he said it was essentially an exercise in “mindfulness” – but mindfulness is not prayer, its conscientiousness, its awareness. And these are, for the most part, good things. However, prayer is communicating with God. And so, we need to acknowledge God, and make our relationship with God, as sinners but also has his beloved people, the frame in which we pray and ask for his mercy and his guidance.
And yet in his talk, a great many issues were raised, reconciliation with indigenous peoples, the legacy of the British Empire, the suggestion that we think of ourselves as colonists, a need to acknowledge atrocities committed by the Canadian armed forces, and so on. These are all valid topics for discussion, and require something more than a passing mention, especially as around all of them, there would be considerable differences of opinion in the crowd. That is, instead of the proper focus of remembrance which unites us on the day, a host of divisive issues was raised as the framing of the event.
He tried to blend these things in with what is usual for the occasion, the recognition of the ultimate sacrifice of the dead, the continuing sacrifice of those who came home, bringing back the heavy burden of horrible memories of war’s unspeakable violence, etc.
In it all one detects the shift; the story being changed bit by bit, and our community being slowly, subtly edged away from God; and the idea that this is all for the best.
The parable of the bridesmaids we hear today is usually taken as pretty straightforward: it’s about having enough “oil” for our lamps; and we get that this story is an allegory of Christian life. Over the course of a lifetime, we create that needed reserve through our acts of piety and charity. The Book of Proverbs says, “Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling…” (Proverbs 21.20)
Through good works, prayer, worship, meditating on God’s word and being guided by it, we ensure that we have enough “oil” to see us into the wee hours of the morning, oil enough so as to be ready for the bridegroom whenever he comes; to be a light in the darkness as he has asked us to be.
And there is an urgency and seriousness about this message that we should not mistake. Jesus tells this story during his last visit to Jerusalem; he is touring the city with his disciples, speaking openly about his coming death, but also the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its temple, and the coming of the end of the age, and our need to be prepared.
But as sober as the occasion is, Jesus nonetheless chooses this story of bridesmaids to drive home his point. He compares his disciples then, and us now, to 13-year-olds at a wedding – but in the context of eternity, and in light of our limited human perspective, I think he’s being generous. He’s talking to us who have an expectation of being called to participate in the great wedding banquet in heaven, and now live with both excitement and anxiety about that great day. Like a girl of 13 or 14, we’re all very naïve, and in with respect to the ways of the world, not terribly well informed. Most of us are also pretty innocent of evil; and I rather think Jesus is being flattering to us in a strange way in casting us as such. Now, if you’re a person in their fifties or sixties or older, or even if you are someone in your thirties and consider yourself a fairly well-informed and educated person, this might strike you as insulting your intelligence. But rest assured that with this gentle bit of humor Jesus is calling us back to humility. I’m sure many here share in the sentiment that the older we get, and the more we learn, the more we realize how little we know.
And as I’ve said on other occasions, I’ve come to regret some of the causes I have given my support to, many of the opinions I have held with conviction and shared without compunction, thinking it put me on the “right side of history”, making me righteous, and insufferably “holier than thou.”
This was foolishness, and in it I was neglecting the need for more oil – that oil of gladness, the unction of holiness, that balm of spiritual healing. We don’t get it according to what the world says is righteousness, through what our culture is telling us is appropriate piety in the public square.
Where do we go from here? I heard discouraged voices in the crowd yesterday, people wondering where we’re headed, disappointed in what was offered, and taking consolation from the fact that, well, we all met nonetheless. But if we continue to empty the spiritual out of the nation, we will become soulless, and I fear, uncaring even as we are politically correct, and the crowds that for several generations gathered on November 11ths colder and wetter than yesterday’s, won’t be seen in the future as an emptiness of gesture replaces our heartfelt plea to God for the souls of our fallen dead, and our prayer to be well-guided into a peaceful future.
It is very much out of fashion to think of ourselves as one of the first popes St. Clement did, as soldiers, albeit soldiers for Christ because there is a spiritual war underway. We will see more of these battles coming, battles for the future of our communities, for our nation, but really for our families, for our children and their future. Rest assured that in following the wisdom of Christ we can be prepared. Mindful of the terrible prophecy of the poet Matthew Arnold about the consequences of a future without faith, where “ignorant armies clash by night,” we will have our lamps lit and a good supply of oil.