By guest writer Rev. Fr. Michael Chua.
I returned last month from a pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless times: “How was it?” I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that whatever could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience, in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary.
But in hindsight, no amount of careful pre-planning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure — life must go on.
So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.
Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaids’ ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.
The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptized and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life: it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptized. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God. That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Savior once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St. Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, under-girding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.
Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.
That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external — like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.
We may be secretly sympathetic toward the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.
As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine:
“Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”
Originally published at Your Grace is Sufficient.
Rev. Michael Chua is a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He is the parish priest of the Church of Jesus Caritas, Kepong and Administrator of the Chapel of Kristus Aman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL, as well as Ecclesiastical Assistant and Chaplain for the Catholic Lawyers Society.