What does it mean to be wise? According to St Paul in our first reading, wisdom consists of knowing Jesus Christ and him crucified. I imagine that many first-time visitors to our church are struck by the giant crucifix suspended over the altar. Despite spending a lot of time here in the church, I am often struck by it. Somehow, I think St Paul would approve of our giant crucifix.
Because it is a great mystery, Paul is correct, it is difficult to speak eloquently about what Jesus accomplished by being crucified. The point he is making is that nobody comes to know the wisdom of God by being really smart or studying really hard. Knowing the wisdom of God results from experience. The experience that results in our grasping, even if in a small way, God’s wisdom is by encountering Jesus Christ, who wasn’t just crucified but who also rose from the dead.
Jesus spent the forty days after his resurrection appearing to the apostles and teaching them things they could understand only after experiencing his death and his rising from the dead (Acts 1:3). On the fortieth day after his resurrection, Jesus ascended into heaven (Acts 1:6-12). Ten days after he ascended, he sent his Holy Spirit upon the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Apostles on the first Christian Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). It is by means of his Holy Spirit that Christ remains present in us and among us until he returns in glory.
In a few moments when we receive Holy Communion, Christ will be in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. It was the Holy Spirit, after all, who transformed the bread we will receive into Christ. Because he comes to be in us in this amazing way, Christ can make himself present through us to others in an equally amazing way. Each time we gather together and receive the Body of Christ, in addition to once again being made his Body, we are sent forth to make Christ present wherever we are by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is summed up very nicely by a quote that is usually attributed to St Teresa of Ávila:
Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the worldWow! That’s a lot to think about. But we have to think about it not only to believe and understand but, more importantly, in order to live like Christians. Believing this and trying to live it might look foolish to a lot people who don’t share our faith. I think you agree that being a Christian can sound kind of crazy. As Christians, instead of getting back at those who do us wrong, we seek to forgive them. Instead of hating our enemies, as Christians, we are supposed to pray for them and seek their good. As Christians, instead of spending all our time and energy trying to grow very wealthy, we are to live below our means and use our money to help those in need. Instead of complaining about the suffering that comes our way in life, as followers of Jesus, we are take up our crosses. All of this is summarized in these words of Jesus: “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matt 16:25).
The Greek word St Paul for wisdom in our first reading is sophia. All of you probably know at least one person named Sophia. In Greek, sophia does not just refer to wisdom, it means something like “awareness of reality according to all the factors that together constitute reality.” “Say what?” you might be asking. To make it a bit easier to understand, what I mean is that, even before God enters the picture, there are plenty of things that make up reality that we don’t perceive with our senses.
Let’s now bring God into the picture by turning to the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who taught elementary school for a few years. He experimented with teaching algebra to kindergartners. Let's just say it didn't go very well. Anyway, Wittgenstein observed: “To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning” (Notebooks, 1914-1916, 8.7.16).
You realize the meaning of life by living wisely. This brings us to the parable Jesus tells in our Gospel today. Before going right to the parable, in addition to believing in Jesus’s death, resurrection, ascension and his sending the Holy Spirit, we believe Jesus will return again. As his disciples stood watching him ascending to heaven, two men dressed in white stood beside them. One of the two, speaking to Jesus’s dumbfounded disciples, said: “why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). As Christians, we live in anticipation of Jesus’s return. This is what Jesus’s parable is about in today’s Gospel.
Jesus’s parable is an allegory. Christ is the bridegroom. The ten virgins are those who believe in Christ. Because they believe in Christ they eagerly await his return. The Bride, who is not explicitly mentioned, is the Church. The wedding feast is what we usually refer to as heaven. Of course, the wedding feast cannot begin until the groom arrives. It is the duty of the ten virgins to greet the groom when he turns up. It is important to notice that all ten fall asleep as they wait for the groom, who is delayed. When the groom finally arrives, waking up quickly, those who were prepared by bringing extra oil quickly prepared to greet the groom, while the other five tried to run out and buy some more oil. When they came back, it was too late, the wedding feast had begun without them and the door was locked and, despite their banging, the groom would not let them in.
The important question is, what does the oil represent in this parable? In all honesty, there is probably more than one way to answer this question. Jesus used parables as provocative illustrations, not precise expositions. Because of this we have to tread lightly when interpreting them. I think the oil just might be the presence of Christ in us. As we discussed, even in the Eucharist, Christ comes to be in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just as it is the oil that keeps the fire burning in the lamps, it is the Holy Spirit who keeps “the flame of faith alive” in our hearts so that “When the Lord comes, [we] may go out to meet him with all the saints” (Rite of Baptism for Several Children, sec. 64).
By receiving the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, but also by going to confession regularly, we receive the oil, or grace, we need to live wisely, which is to live for Christ. Perhaps the price we pay for living wisely is to look like fools to some who don’t believe.