Though Advent doesn’t start until the end of this month, the readings for these last few Sundays of the liturgical year have a very real advent feeling about them. We are once again asked to consider the event that we have come to know as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. There is a rather easy explanation for this that can be gleaned from the history of the liturgical year. The oldest document in which we find the length and exercises of Advent mentioned with anything like clearness, is a passage in the second book of the History of the Franks by St. Gregory of Tours, where he says that St. Perpetuus, one of his predecessors, who held the see of Tours about the year 480, had decreed a fast three times a week, from the feast of St. Martin until Christmas. The feast of St. Martin occurs on November 11. This seems to indicate that the earliest observance of Advent was another forty day period much the same as the forty days of fasting that was practiced before Easter. It was not until four centuries later under Pope St. Nicholas the First that the Church shortened the period of fasting from forty days to four weeks. November has traditionally been a time to remember those who have died, and considering the second coming of Jesus fits very neatly into that tradition.
As I have mentioned on several occasions, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians is the earliest piece of the Christian Scriptures. It gives us a very early picture of life in the first Christian Gentile community. Obviously, these men and women were beginning to show some concern about those who died. St. Paul and the Apostles had all preached that Jesus would return, and that when he returned he would take all those who had placed their faith in him to heaven. However, Jesus didn’t return as early as they had expected. So when Christians began to die, it caused them concern about whether they would also be taken to heaven. Secondly, Jesus had promised that those who believed in him would never die. So there were some who began to spread the rumor that they had been duped by both Jesus and the Apostles.
In today’s passage from the First Letter to the Thessalonians, we hear St. Paul writing to put those rumors to bed. “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep,” he writes. He directly responds to the sense of hopelessness that comes about because they believed that those who died before Jesus’ return would be left out. He draws upon the apocalyptic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures to describe what will happen at the last day; clouds, angels, trumpet blasts are all signs of a theophany in their tradition. Paul is not predicting the future. He is simply describing the reality in terms that these people would understand, using their tradition and their understanding of a theophany.
The Gospel parable of the ten maidens waiting for the return of the bridegroom is yet another bit of Hebrew tradition. This parable appears only in St. Matthew’s Gospel who wrote for the Jewish Christians of Jerusalem. It is part of the fifth and last discourse of St. Matthew’s Gospel, a discourse that concerns itself with the “End Times.” Like St. Paul, St. Matthew is trying to calm the nervousness that has been caused by the delay in Jesus’ return. The parable, the first of three stories that Jesus tells in succession, weaves together phrases and ideas that recur throughout the “End Times” discourse; namely, the coming of the Son of Man, delay, watchfulness, unexpectedness of the moment of arrival, reward for faithfulness, and exclusion of those who fail to be ready.
The parable raises all sorts of questions. Why is the bridegroom late? Why don’t the five wise maidens share their oil? Why do the five foolish maidens go looking for merchants at midnight? Where are they waiting? However, even though all the questions raise interesting issues, they all fall away when the moral of the story is revealed; namely, we all must be prepared for the return of the Bridegroom. No one knows when he will return. No one knows when he or she will die. The only thing that really matters in the end is that those who are found ready when the Bridegroom returns will be admitted to the wedding banquet.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator