Today’s gospel asks, “What are you waiting for?” It is always a good question, but especially pertinent on our patronal feast day and the present situation of our nation and parish.
The parable reflects the marriage customs of 1st century Galilee which scholars tell us can still be seen in some places in the Middle East today. A marriage was an arrangement between families with two stages. The potential bride was sent to live with the possible groom’s family for about a year. If the situation proved satisfactory the groom would go the bride’s family and conclude the, mostly financial, details. When he returned to his house, they were considered married. This was marked by a great feast. Usually, the only one that the couple he would ever give. The young women of the village would participate by greeting the groom with song and if he came after dark with lit torches. This may have been the only party of the year and they would not want to miss it. Yet some of the young women did not calculate properly and lost out of the chance of joining the celebration.
Why did St. Matthew include this in his gospel? He is writing for city people who may have understood the reference but perhaps never experienced it. Matthew as always is seeking to bring people together and he sees in these two groups of villagers a division in his own church. There were those who emphasized that the kingdom of God was among them., here and now. That is certainly true, but it is also true that it needs to be completed and it can only be fulfilled by Jesus. We are called to live good moral lives, but Matthew is acutely aware of the danger of thinking that by that we save ourselves. Ultimately, we need Jesus to bring the kingdom and our lives to complete fulfillment.
Therefore, we watch, but for what?
In Matthew’s gospel, oil is a sign of performing good works. In the Sermon of the Mount, Jesus compares good deeds to the light of a lamp which must “Shine before others” (5:16). As he is building up his Church, he knows that waiting for Jesus is not a passive activity, but is marked by acts of love and kindness that we saw last week in the Beatitudes. We watch for opportunities to do good.
Our Patron, St. Charles Borromeo, knew that as well. He was a 16th Century aristocrat, who as Pope Pius IV’s nephew was entrusted with great power and authority at a very early age. He could have enjoyed the good life in Rome, but instead he became the Archbishop of Milan, the largest diocese in Italy, and was the first bishop who actually lived there in almost 80 years.
Then he discovered what was waiting for him.
His clergy was indolent and ignorant. He immediately formed seminaries for the education of priests. He also saw the need to educate people in the Faith and developed everything from Sunday Schools for children to fraternities for educated adults. As people do not like to be reformed, especially when they may have to live a more disciplined life, St. Charles received the reward of the true reformer: someone tried to kill him. Ironically, the would-be assassin was a member of a group called “The Brothers of Humility”.
Several years after he arrived in Milan, there was a great famine followed by an outbreak of the plague. The rich, including the governor and his staff, left the city. St. Charles not only stayed, but also persuaded many clergy to remain with him. He nourished the people in several ways. First, he bankrupted himself by feeding over 60,000 per day. Then he set up altars on the streets and had mass celebrated in the outdoors. You can see this in the stained-glass window behind me:
These activities shamed the governor and other civil leaders to return and begin the reconstruction of the city.
What is waiting for us?
As a parish under the protection of St. Charles, we should be especially aware of the need to know our faith and care for the poor.
He would be very proud of us that throughout our own time of lockdown we have continued our religious education programs. Most conspicuously, of course, our “Sunday School” which as St. Charles developed them is quite fitting, but also our adult faith sharing and book clubs. It is in his spirit that we will be expanding our education ministry this Advent to include bible study. The scriptures interpreted by the tradition of our church is the bedrock on which we live. The reformation of our Parish is waiting for us and as educated people it is ridiculous to believe that we can rebuild St. Charles in ignorance of the scriptures. It will be the Holy Spirit that will guide and strengthen us but as the young woman waiting for the bridegroom, we must give the Spirit something to work with.
The poor are also waiting for us. The necessity of moving the food pantry once located at Catholic Charities headquarters to St. Charles has proved a great blessing for us. We have over 20 regular volunteers, most of them from our parish. This is wonderful but it only deals with the result not the cause and our young professionals’ group is working with several local civic groups to address the root causes of racism and lack of opportunity.
What else is waiting for us?
The recent election campaign has revealed that our country is more divided and bewildered than we may have imagined. But we may better ask, “What was waiting for us?” As revealed in his latest encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti”, Pope Francis has clearly shown that the origins of a lot of our problems would have been revealed and solutions advanced through Catholic Social teaching. Yet, how many of us took advantage of this treasure? Were we not like the unwise in today’s reading? Reasons for and suggestions to address this are found in the weekly email and website.
I do not know what even the immediate future will bring. What awaits us is a mystery, but we who assemble here today can take comfort that through our faith in Jesus we know who is waiting for us.