There's a clear message in Sunday's readings: True faith in God demands a searching, watching, evolving heart. Those who abandon the quest, the vigil or the growth abandon their faith. If we follow a living God, we also must live committed to the changes and insights God daily calls us to experience.

Both our Jewish and Christian ancestors in the faith understood the implications of acquiring a living heart. The author of Wisdom, for instance, believes our life of faith is a constant discovery of God working in our world, a relentless search for God among us (Wis 6:12-16). Calling this quest "wisdom," the Sacred Writer encourages the faithful to give themselves over to "her," the most rewarding experience a follower of God can have.

"Taking thought of her," the writer proclaims, "is the perfection of prudence, whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care." Those who stop looking have lost the living God.

God's reign

Jesus speaks of vigilance so often in the Gospels that Sunday's Gospel (Mt. 25:1-13) is more of a summary than a new insight on the topic. The key to understanding this particular parable revolves around the meaning of "the reign of God." Jesus isn't referring to the afterlife when He employs that phrase. Instead, He's pointing to God working with power among us right here and now.

"The reign of God," Jesus teaches, "is like ten bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to welcome the groom." According to Jewish custom, marriages were ratified long before they were consummated. Here, Jesus reflects on the anticipation and uncertainty that were a normal part of the groom bringing his wife home to celebrate the marriage's consummation.

Matthew's community was very familiar with the vigil that the groom's family and friends kept to welcome him and his bride when they finally were able to break away from her family and friends. The farewells usually dragged on deep into the night. Only the most watchful and prudent would be prepared to celebrate the couple's eventual arrival. Those not waiting at the door when the festivities began would probably find the door "barred" when they finally showed up.

Jesus wants, "Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or the hour." We have no idea when God will enter our humdrum, sterile lives. No heavenly trumpet blast will precede God's arrival. Only those watching for God will experience God.

Writing more than 20 years before Matthew, Paul presumes such faith-filled vigilance involves the capacity to change and evolve. In the second reading (I Thes 4:13-18), the Apostle deals with one of the earliest and most basic Christian turnabouts: the delayed Parousia.

Worried Christians

Expecting Jesus to return quickly, first-generation Christians believed no one would die before He came back to take all His followers to heaven with Him. But the years passed. Jesus didn't return, and Christians started dying. One of the reasons Paul writes this earliest Christian letter is to respond to the community's fears and questions about those who die before the Parousia. Will they totally miss out on the "goodies" the Lord's followers expect to receive when Jesus returns? Or will the dead simply be last in line when eternal life is handed out?

Paul encourages the Thessalonians to shift gears. Instead of presuming their deceased loved ones will be at a disadvantage at the Parousia, their faith should evolve to the point of believing that "those who have died in Christ will rise first. Then we, the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air." Contradicting the older belief, the living will line up behind the dead when Jesus returns.

Paul's teaching not only marks a significant change in early Christian belief, but it's also a symbol of the watchfulness which followers of God have developed over the centuries. Scripture is clear: Only the alert and vigilant experience God coming into their lives. Those who are asleep to the present never seem to notice God's presence.

(11-07-96)