Homily for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time 2011
We celebrate a lot of Baptisms here these days. But we celebrate very few weddings. Society does not value marriage very much. Although weddings parties are very popular. If we do not value marriage, then sex before marriage becomes the norm. There is no reason to wait. Just follow one's feelings. One of the reasons we do not value marriage these days, I believe, is that our world does not believe in the future or the past. Everything is for the now. Our memories go back no further than our grandparents perhaps and we cannot envisage a future further than our grand children. All that matters is what is good for me now. We have nothing to learn from the past and nothing to live for or die for into the future.
The “bridesmaids” in our parable (Matthew 25:1-13) are not quite what we understand by the term today. The word used could also mean a young girl or a virgin or simply a teenager. It was used of Mary by the angel in Joseph's dream (Matthew 1:23). Girls could be betrothed from the age of twelve and boys from the age of thirteen in Jesus day. Marriage could take place a year or two later. Weddings at that time were different to what we know. The parable of the ten bridesmaids reflects the wedding customs of the time. The groom would have been at the bride's house finalising the marriage contract and bride price with the girl's father. This could cause a long delay if there was a dispute! The actual marriage was the contract followed by the groom transferring the bride from her father's house to his house. The girls in the story would be required to be ready to go out onto the road to meet them and accompany them home to celebrate with lighted lamps. Because of the delay they all went to sleep. But only some were organised. Sounds like teenagers.
However, this story is not really about a particular wedding. We realise this because there is no mention of the bride at all! Do you remember the beautiful prayer we say after Baptism? We hear it frequently. A candle is lit from the Easter candle and presented to the family. The priest says,
".. this light is entrusted to you to be kept burning brightly. This child of yours has been enlightened by Christ. This child is to walk always as a child of the light. May this child keep the flame of faith alive in her heart. When the Lord comes, may this child go out to meet him with all the saints in the heavenly kingdom."
The parable of the ten teenage girls is the background to this prayer. The story is about welcoming the kingdom of God in the person of Christ. This is a constant theme of the Gospel of St Matthew. Christ is often referred to as the bridegroom of the Church just as God is thought of as the bridegroom of Israel in the Old Testament. The wedding banquet, as we have often heard, is and image of the heavenly banquet at the fullness of time. So a person being baptised is urged to keep his or her lamp of faith alight throughout life so that they are ready to welcome the Lord.
Waiting like this no small task. As we know, our prayers do not always seem to be heard. Or at least not quickly. God does not intervene when we think we need help. It was a real issue for the Church of St Matthew's time and of Paul in the 2nd reading. They expected Christ to come again in glory in their lifetime. But it did not happen. Like the bridegroom in the parable Christ is late in coming by our timetable. We can easily lose interest and lose heart and let our faith grow dim. The warning is to keep our faith so that our hope remains bright. We can encounter Christ at any time or place, in the events and people of our lives if we are awake and prepared.
I think I will tear out what hair I have that remains on my head if I hear another person say marriage is just a piece of paper! People are prepared to sell their souls to the bank by signing a piece of paper, a contract, for a home loan. But some are not prepared to honour a commitment to another person by being married. There are many and varied marriage customs around the world. The marriage customs of Jesus' day were not like ours. Marriage then was not even celebrated with a religious ceremony. It was not until the fifteenth century that marriage was proclaimed a Sacrament and then the ceremony given a religious setting in the Church.
What all marriage customs have in common, though, is that the wedding ceremony involves some public act or event. It is witnessed by family, relatives, friends and neighbours. In fact, recognised, by the whole of society. What the inexperience and weakness of two human beings may not be able to sustain, is made up for by the experience and strength of the community. Today, a couple is often expected to find all the resources for their relationship within themselves. That seems impossible to me. So many, I suppose realistically, do not try. It is to their great credit that so many young people by their idealism and energy do build solid marriages.
For a Christian, marriage proclaims and brings about, the coming Reign of God. It is a Sacrament of God's love entering our lives. Because we have this hoped for future we are prepared to make the sacrifices necessary so that families flourish. There is great wisdom to be found in the experience of the past handed down to us in our Catholic tradition. Or like the foolish bridesmaids we will remain unprepared for the future. Eternity is in all our days. All our yesterdays and all our tomorrows. The wisdom of God is searching for those who are waiting. So tells the reading from the book of Wisdom (6:12-16).