1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 and Matthew 25: 1-13
Our ability to remember is a great gift. Memories from childhood of long summer holidays playing football with friends until dusk will always be ones that I shall treasure. We all guard some particular memories as special in our lives and they represent a precious repertoire of people and experiences that we continue to hold dear. Memories allow us to simultaneously inhabit the different times of our lives in a present which is enriched by the people and experiences with whom we are no longer present. In this sense, memory is a means of time travel that we have at our disposal to move between the different realities of past, present and future.
The concept of eschatology, like that of memory, also adopts an attitude towards time. It evokes the sense of the final consummation of all things in an ultimate divine act of resolution of the creation, bringing past, present and future together as one. However, as well as a temporal concept, eschatology is also a teleological one. It expresses the idea that all things are structured so that they reach the end for which God has created them. In this sense, everything that Jesus did was eschatological. He did the will of the Father with his whole life and manifested the purpose of the Father for all of creation in announcing and embodying the Kingdom of heaven.
This eschatology is also embedded in the wisdom active in the creation that we heard about in our reading during mattins this morning. A wisdom which goes out to seek those worthy of her, who take the time and the trouble to be open to her. This wisdom reveals that the creation is not purposeless, but rather it hastens to meet those who desire to know her, her radiance and her unfading glory.
In the First Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians we are given to understand something of the power of this transformative wisdom which is incarnate in Jesus. It is a wisdom that is fully revealed in the death and resurrection of Christ. All the creation was, is and will be re-made in this resurrection of Christ. All those who have died will be brought with him at the consummation of all things to the goal to which they were destined: to live in glory with God, praising God forever. What seemed like the end of life will be revealed as a moment of transition towards a future state of fulfilment for which we are all created.
The good news which Paul brings us is that the fears we have that life might be ultimately pointless, that death is the end and that’s it, are unfounded. We are made for eternal glory with God, and Jesus, our saviour, the Second Adam, has made this a present reality for us in Christ. The eschatology of the Gospel is the Christian antidote to the global pandemic of the fear of meaninglessness. A pandemic brought on by the banality of secularism which is fostering so many mental health problems in our own times.
Two things seem to prevent us from receiving this antidote. The first is a reticence to surrender ourselves to Christ. To hand our lives over to the one who is in ultimate control. Most of us tend to want to keep a firm grip on the steering wheel of our lives and handing over the control is only possible once we learn to trust in the one who will bring our lives and our purposes to their end. Developing a trust in Him is something we need to pray for. It is a gift which the Holy Spirit gives us so that we may truly surrender ourselves to him.
The second challenge in receiving this antidote is that the familiarity of controlling our own lives can be rather consoling. It can become a kind of nostalgia for the past with its regular rhythms and routines. These regular patterns and habits of our lives do provide us with a sense of security which we need. Yet, as we journey in faith, we gradually learn to discover that these patterns and habits are less in the external forms that we may adopt in one place or another and at one time or another, the long summer holidays playing football, but rather lie in the deeper commitment which grows in us to follow the Lord wherever he leads us. This deeper desire is tested in times of trial. When, for example, we lose loved ones, suffer unemployment, encounter illness and suffering in our lives, and so on, but it is in such times that the opportunity for the desire we have to trust in the Lord can grow if we allow it to.
Yet, for this to happen, we need to appreciate that the final consummation to which we are called is not simply a future reality. It characterises each moment of our present reality. The coming of the Lord at midnight in our Gospel passage from Matthew is illuminated in the present by the oil of the Holy Spirit which lights up every moment as the hour of the coming of the Lord. This is why the wise bridesmaids are ready to meet the bridegroom at any time of the day or night when he comes, because their lives have been a constant meeting with him. We might say that the wise bridesmaids were practiced in finding the wisdom spoken of by Solomon and now known in the flesh in the Christ. They rise early at midnight to seek her and they have no difficulty in finding her because she is always to be found sitting at the gate of the house of the bridesmaids.
It should, therefore, come as little surprise that those bridesmaids who did not have a habit of going out to the gate to meet the bridegroom are flummoxed when at midnight the bridegroom arrives. They have no oil in their flasks, they have not been open to receiving the Holy Spirit day in and day out and so when the crunch comes they are running on empty, empty of the Holy Spirit, but sadly, rather too full of themselves. The self-emptying of the human spirit is a condition of the possibility of our being filled with the Holy Spirit, of being a wise bridesmaid with a full flask of oil so that our lamps may burn brightly when the bridegroom comes.
Time and teleology thus meet in our readings for today. Past, present and future are all gathered up in the consummation of all things which is our final destiny in Christ. And, for this reason, it is right and proper that we should especially remember today all those who have given their lives for others. They have made the ultimate sacrifice in often confused and confusing times. We do this not out of any nationalistic jingoism, but rather because the goal of any conflict should be peace, a peace which will only be fully consummated at the end of time, when history will be enfolded in God’s completion of time.
The Rev’d Dr Tony Carroll