(The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins)
Sunday Nov. 7 homily to the Passionist Nuns of Saint Louis...and mass attendees
I was intending to read you some more stories from the lives of the Desert Fathers, but all week, my friends have been making apocalyptic prophecies, and this morning at 2am, I woke up thinking about them and decided to preach on that topic instead. So if my sermon sounds like the sort of thing you would worry about in the middle of the night, you know why.
The key insight of our Gospel parable is this: that GOD WILL COME TO US—BUT WE HAVE TO BE READY. Our salvation is assured, so long as we show up—and stay awake long enough to notice.
Well, in theory it is.
For those of you who have had to sit around waiting for me to show up for mass, you understand that there are some among us for whom merely showing up is itself a struggle. Twice already, I’ve failed to show up for mass here at the Passionists—and even when I do show up, I’m usually late. My mother used to tell me, “You’ll be late for your own funeral” and it turns out she was speaking prophecy because as a priest, I’ve been late to several of my funerals.
A few years ago, the father of one of my students asked to meet with me because she was worried. “I drag my son, kicking and screaming to mass every Sunday, but he hates it. When we get there, he slumps down in the pew like a convict and acts like he’s sleeping. I wonder whether it’s even worth it, you know. After all,” he said, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” I thought about what he was saying. He had a really valid point; and I for one, could understand his frustration. But here’s what I told him: “It is true that you cannot make the horse drink. But if you don’t lead that horse to the water, you can be certain it never will.”
We are not saved by faith alone. We are saved as part of a community of believers. And to be part of the community, we need to show up, because you can’t have a relationship with someone who isn’t there. The foolish virgins of the parable learned this lesson the hard way. And if I may be a little bold here, I think perhaps we as Catholics have been a little too eager to skip mass on Sunday in favor of playing it Covid safe. If Mass on Sunday is the single most important thing we do all week, and we haven’t been doing that, then maybe we shouldn’t be doing anything.
Anything at all.
I realize I may be preaching to the choir here. (Actually, come to think of it, I am, literally, preaching to the choir.) But again, it seems to me that if we really believed this was the incarnate son of God visiting us in the flesh…we’d be willing to risk everything. But instead, we closed the doors of our churches.
Now, it’s easy for me to say, because I’m not in charge. The bishops know more than I do, and they say we can stay home if we’re scared of dying. But I was under the impression that we come to Sunday Mass every week on pain of our immortal souls—and that, as far as canon law goes, there are only two exceptions: if we are actually physically sick or if we are traveling…BY OXCART.
And this is why Sunday mass is worth the risk. Because this is the time we assemble as a community—as a complete community—to pray. And more than that: because at this prayer, we offer Jesus as our sacrifice, and Jesus is perfect, which means this is the only perfect prayer we have to offer. So even if we look bored or half-asleep…or even if we look completely asleep. Even if we don’t want to be here in the first place, we come, because it is a well of grace. A fountain of grace. A spring of living water. We come here to drink.
And that’s all we need to do. Show up and drink. Personally, I find that to be an enormous consolation. This thing we’re doing here—it’s goodness, it’s trueness, it’s merit—doesn’t depend on my eloquence or holiness or good judgment. In fact, it doesn’t depend on anything we think or do. I believe this with all my heart. Jesus does all the work here. And speaking as one who fails time and time again to love people the way I should, I see this as the greatest of God’s gifts to me. This Eucharist will be truly, sublimely good…precisely because it doesn’t depend on me.
As I was writing this homily, I was reminded of a story my sister told me long ago about one of her children. She has two daughters (at the time, they were four and six) and she noticed that the younger of the two would whisper to herself during the consecration at mass. So she started listening very carefully, and discovered, to her dismay, that when the priest would lean over the host and say, “This is my body,” Mary would say, “Mmmm, no it isn’t.” And when he’d say the words, “This is the cup of my blood,” she’d say, “Uhhhh, no it’s not.”
So my sister spent the next several days trying to explain to her the Catholic doctrine of transubstantion. She wasn’t entirely convinced that she had succeed (and how could she have? It took Thomas Aquinas five volumes, and he was writing for adults); but then there was an ecumenical prayer service at Mary’s preschool (a “non-religious” prayer service actually, if I remember the details correctly. How such a thing is even possible, only God knows…) And afterwards, my sister asked her how it went. Mary thought for a minute and said, “Well, Mom, it was OK. But you know, Jesus wasn’t there.” It turns out, she was correcting the priest. That was Jesus’ body, not Father’s! For all her lack of sophistication regarding sacramental theology, this child did have a sense of what Cardinal Ratzinger called “the dimension of the sacred in the liturgy.”
How exactly we will recover this dimension of the sacred is up to you, I think. No doubt, it will entail a return to the catechism, a return to the scriptures, and a return, in a special way to Mass on Sunday. But for now, I’ll simply leave you with a quote. It’s from a book by a monk named Gregory Dix. He wrote it in 1951, and his description of the mass one of the most beautiful ever written:
“ For century after century,” he writes, “spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; .... for the wisdom of the government of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die;… because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna…for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.”
NOTE: But for God’s sake, take reasonable precautions. Wear a mask, even if you don’t believe it is very effective. If nothing else, think of it as an act of charity—to make the people around you feel more at ease. And if you’re going to receive communion on the tongue, kneel to receive it…otherwise, you often wind up licking the priest’s finger, which is just plane gross.