Each year on 11 November in this country we remember the members of the armed forces who have died in the line of duty. On that day, 99 years ago, the fighting on the Western Front in the Great War finally stopped. The end of the Great War continues to be marked with sadness and a sense of unimaginable loss. It’s a reflective and rather gloomy ceremonial. But that very same day, 11 November, is a national holiday in Poland as the country joyfully celebrates its Independence Day. The ending of the Great War was the new beginning of the re-established state after 120 years of being torn apart and forcibly incorporated into three hostile empires. Why do I mention that? Because it’s an interesting example of a perceived tragedy that in one’s eyes can be perceived as a blessing. Out of the horrors of the Great War a number of independent countries emerged across the central and eastern part of Europe, stretching from the Balkan region in the south to Finland in the north.
In November we remember our relatives and friends who have passed away and we pray for them. Fittingly, today’s gospel turns our attention towards our ultimate destination: ‘Stay awake, because you don’t know either the day or the hour.’ We are quite good at dealing with the present, with the challenges that we know and face every day. It’s the future that makes us anxious. It’s the fear of the unknown lying ahead of us that drives us to make preparations in order to soften the blows of unpredictable and unpleasant happenings. Saving for rainy days, pension schemes, insurance, investments, and so on, are all means of dealing with the future, placing our bets against the odds. As the parable in today’s gospel shows, that’s the right thing to do. Five of the ten bridesmaids were praised for their acumen and forethought. They took spare oil in case the waiting was to be prolonged. They were prepared. The other five, who didn’t put in much thought, eventually missed the wedding they were invited to, and to their embarrassment found themselves left out.
Traditionally, this parable has been interpreted as a call to ‘collect good deeds’ during the earthly life in order to pay St Peter a kind of ‘moral entry fee’ at the gates of heaven. I’d like to look at this passage from a slightly different angle. You may remember the recent story of five Argentine men who travelled to New York to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their high school graduation. As they were cycling along a path beside the Hudson River, they were mown down by a terrorist-driven truck. Their lives were suddenly, unexpectedly and prematurely cut short, tragically leaving them with no chance to say good bye to their loved ones and friends. It’s only my guess, but at least it’s an educated one, that they left behind much unfinished business, including open plans and matters that they won’t be able to close. Similar stories happen all over the world when people pass away unexpectedly, either killed in natural or man-made disasters, or by undiscovered health issues. It might sound rather strange and perverse, but those diagnosed with a terminal illness can count it as a small blessing. This is because they are given time and opportunity to deal with any unfinished business, to close down matters in an orderly way, to make peace with their grudges and resentments and to be reconciled with others. It gives them a chance to get ready to close their eyes in peace when the time comes.
But we don’t have to wait to be diagnosed with a terminal illness in order to start dealing with our past and our present. There’s no point in postponing our dealing with important matters and with other people until an unspecified future time. Life is a terminal condition. So, you’d better sort things out now, ‘because you don’t know either the day or the hour.’
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