November 12, 2023 video
Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; 4:13-14; Matthew 25:1-13
I was driving at night on the way to Spokane. My mother had died that morning, and I was going home to be with my dad. And as I drove through the high desert, I passed a football stadium in a little town, lit up with those big stadium lights. A game was going on, and the light was pouring into the darkness.
“You know neither the day nor the hour,” Jesus says. My mother didn’t know that in the middle of mopping the kitchen floor she would have a heart attack and die before the EMTs even got there. I didn’t know that driving through the desert at night, in my grief, when I least expected it, I would see a great light–for just a moment, a light, shining into my darkness.
And I wasn’t paying attention. I was too numb to notice, I was driving by too fast, and I think this is how it is for all of us. We’re not ready. We haven’t filled our lamps with oil.
We don’t set aside time to pray. We don’t let the words of the scriptures soak into us, don’t let them train us to see our lives, too, as sacred texts.
We don’t set aside time to remember these moments, to sit in silence and reflect, because moments like this almost always pass us by at first. We’re too busy. We’re too distracted. But we can remember them after the fact. We can see what rises in us again. But only if we stop. Only if we hold still. “The believer is essentially one who remembers,” Pope Francis says.
Wisdom is always waiting by the gate, for those who watch for her.
This is the key to the mass: remembering. “Do this in memory of me,” Jesus says in the Upper Room, on the night before the crucifixion, at the Last Supper. We repeat these words in the words of institution in the Eucharistic Prayer, and what we are called to remember is first the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Christ is the center. Christ is the truth. But at the same time, we are also called to remember our own lives, too, through Christ, our own dying and rising every day. “You are indeed Holy, O Lord,” the priest says in the third Eucharistic Prayer,
and all you have created / rightly gives you praise,
for through your Son our Lord Jesus Christ,
by the power and working of the Holy Spirit,
you give life to all things and make them holy.
The prayer is saying: look at the bread and the wine of your lives. Look at the light shining in the darkness as you pass by or remember it and give thanks for it. “You never cease to gather a people to yourself,” the priest says, “so that from the rising of the sun to its setting / a pure sacrifice may be offered in your name.” From the rising of the sun to its setting. Everywhere. Unceasingly.
And then at the consecration, at that moment, the Holy Spirit makes this holy ordinary bread and this ordinary wine, right in front of us–not just a symbol of Christ but Christ himself, the Bridegroom come, here and now. It’s as if the world is being created a new, as if the Big Bang is happening all over again, whenever the mass is celebrated and wherever it is, every second.
In a recent poll a majority of Catholics say they don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and I think that’s in part because they don’t believe in the Real Presence of Christ in their lives. It’s too subtle. Too deep. Too ordinary. But this works the other way around, too: in the Eucharist the light shines out into the darkness and through it, the light shines in us. The Eucharist is the oil for the lamp and the lamp, and with it we can see Christ in everything.
This the cycle, the continual exchange: our lives help us understand the mass, and the mass helps us understand our lives.
I don’t mean that God’s presence is obvious. I don’t mean that there was a huge banner hanging above the stadium that night, something that solved the problem of my mother’s bitterness and regret or my own complicated feelings about her or the darkness not just above that desert but above Israel and the Gaza Strip, above the battlefields of Ukraine, everywhere.
The gospel today is a parable, the Lord’s favorite way of trying to teach us, his central form, and we forget how wonderfully open-ended the parables are. As the New Testament scholar C.H. Dodd puts it, a parable is a simple story, but a story that leaves us in “sufficient doubt” about what exactly it means as to “tease us into the thought.” I’ve read the Parable of the Ten Virgins many times, and it keeps opening up for me. Sometimes I identify with the foolish virgins, sometimes with the wise, sometimes with the merchants who have closed their doors. With all of them, really. The meaning is always changing, the meaning is always just beyond my reach.
Our lives are parables, too. Not treatises. Not billboards. Our lives are parables, and the meaning exists “between the lines,” Abbot Jeremy Driscoll says, the Abbot at Mount Angel Abbey.
What does the parable of the stadium mean, of the light in the desert–what did it mean and what does it mean now, as is it has come back to me so vividly?
That I need to stay awake. I need to be ready.
That the darkness is all around us and we can’t explain it away, we can’t understand it or deny it, we can’t figure out how all the suffering in the world can keep going on if there really is a God.
That still the light is shining in that darkness, that there really is a God, who is always trying to speak to us, always with us, even in the darkness and especially then. Both: the light and the darkness, the sadness and the joy, and it’s not up to us to reconcile them in some easy, convenient way but to live with the tensions, the contradictions, to live with everything, and tto rust God to reconcile and make sense of it all. That’s beyond us.
And yet. And yet. “We do not want you to be unaware,” St. Paul says, “about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve, like the rest, who have no hope.” Have hope. Have hope. “For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Death is not the end. Sadness is not the only truth. Violence is not unending, but the Lord, with “the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God” will raise us, and we will be caught up together, to “meet the Lord in the air”—in the air above the stadium, in the darkness above our battlefields.
The light is pouring into the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. A game is going on and the stadium lights are blazing. I am passing by. I am on my way to my father.
But I know that in the stadium the stands are full of mothers and fathers, and daughters and sons, and neighbors and strangers and friends. The whole town is there. I can’t hear them but I know that everyone is cheering.