"We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep." These words from our second reading direct our attention to a subject we mostly try to avoid: death. The Church puts death front and center during this month of November. It begins with All Saints’ Day, which is immediately followed by All Souls’ Day, when we pray in a special way for our departed loved ones.
The celebrated eighteenth century Englishman and wit, Dr. Samuel Johnson, said once: "Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it does concentrate his mind wonderfully." In a sense, we are all like the man who knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight. We all know we must die. What better time to think about death than in this month of November, when we can do so calmly and prayerfully, rather than pushing the whole uncomfortable subject out of our thoughts until the knife is at our throat?
In our second reading Paul says that when the Lord Jesus returns in glory, those who have already died "will rise first. Then we who are alive ... will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." That is poetry. It is symbolic, not literal. Throughout the Bible clouds symbolize God’s presence. God appeared to Moses in a cloud atop Mount Sinai to give him the Ten Commandments (Ex. 24:15-18). God spoke from the same cloud at Jesus’ transfiguration (Mk 9:7). At his ascension Jesus disappeared into a cloud (Acts 1:9). He said he would come again "on the clouds of heaven" (Mk 14:62).
People who say that we must take every word in the Bible literally, miss the poetry in Paul’s language, turning it into prose. Though ironically, they say that Jesus’ words at the Last Supper, "This is my body," are not literal but only symbolic, they believe that the words about being "caught up to meet the Lord in the air" mean that at Jesus’ return those still living will rise vertically into the air to meet him. They call this "the rapture." That explains the bumper stickers you may have seen: "In case of rapture, this vehicle will be unmanned."
If you look at the Sunday religious broadcasts on television, most of them produced by fundamentalist Protestants, you will hear preaching about "the rapture", and very likely a song about it: "See you at the rapture." The TV preachers contend that Christ’s return in glory, and what they call "the rapture", are just around the corner. They offer many biblical texts to prove this.
Using the Bible in that way, taking isolated texts out of context, it is possible to prove just about anything. In reality, the Bible nowhere gives us any kind of timetable for predicting the end of the world. Jesus himself says quite specifically: "That day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, not even the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13:32). The TV preachers are onto something, however. The Bible does tell us that we are living in the final age of world history. How long this age will last, we cannot know. What we do know is that history is not aimless. It is moving toward an end pre-determined by God. At that end, the power of evil, already crippled by Jesus’ victory on Calvary, will be swept away, and God will reign unhindered.
The Bible tells us that we are to prepare for this great and final event, and for our own personal death, not by speculation about the date, but by living here and now in the light of Christ’s return and God’s final triumph. This means living not for ourselves, but for God and for others. It means pursuing justice instead of exploitation; trying to build people up rather than tearing them down; being more interested in giving than in getting. That way of living is the "wisdom" we heard about in our first reading: "The perfection of prudence," that reading told us, which makes those who pursue it "quickly free from care."
In today’s gospel reading Jesus warns that those who spurn this wisdom, living for themselves, heedless of life’s meaning and of God’s claims on them, are headed for disaster. They are like the foolish bridesmaids who made no preparations. They assumed that they could always get more oil for their torches whenever they needed it, and that the door of the house would be opened for them even if they arrived late. The foolish bridesmaids are shocked to discover that, at the decisive hour, they are unprepared, and excluded. Until then there seemed to be no difference between the wise and foolish bridesmaids. "They all became drowsy and fell asleep," Jesus tells us. The midnight call to action finds the wise prepared, however, and the foolish unprepared.
Somewhere right now someone is asking: When will the midnight call come for me? Which of us has never asked that question? Jesus himself gives us the answer: "You cannot know the day or the hour." Does this mean we must live always tense, on tiptoe? That is impossible, and Jesus never asks the impossible. Jesus’ warning in this parable is cause for anxiety only for people who live carelessly and thoughtlessly.
Let me conclude by telling you the story of the medieval morality play Everyman. At the play’s opening Everyman is walking home, thinking happily of dinner, family, and fireside. He almost bumps into a black-clad figure. Startled, he asks the man’s name.
"My name is Death," the man replies. "I have come to take you with me."
"There must be some mistake," Everyman insists. "I never felt better in my life."
"There is no mistake," Death tells him. "You must come with me."
Desperate, Everyman pleads: "At least let me bring a friend with me. I don’t want to go alone."
Death smiles, "If you can find a friend who will go with you, he may come. I will give you one hour. Then meet me here."
Everyman hurries back toward town to the house of a friend he knows well, knocks on the door, and pours out his story to his friend. The man looks at him with mingled sadness and terror. "I cannot come, my friend. It’s impossible." The friend’s name is "Riches." Increasingly desperate, Everyman hurries to the house of a second friend, then to a third. In each case the answer is a frightened, "I’m sorry. I cannot come." Their names are "Fame" and "Pleasure."
Slowly Everyman turns back down the path to his rendezvous with Death. As he walks along, he comes upon another old friend, one he has not seen lately. Without much hope, he tells his sad story again. To his astonishment, this friend replies: "Sure, I’ll go with you." His name is "Good Deeds."
Death was a familiar figure in the Middle Ages. Average life expectancy was under forty; infant mortality was common. There were no hospitals or nursing homes. People tended their dying and buried their dead. Death at a great age was rare. Today we take it for granted. We Americans tend to insulate ourselves from death. When it comes, we cosmeticize it. Perhaps it’s all a way of trying to avoid Everyman’s question:
Who will go with me on my final journey?