The Oil of the Wise Virgins


Today at Holy Mass, we read the Parable of the Ten Virgins. They await the bridegroom’s arrival, deep into the night. Then, behold, he comes! But only five of the young ladies have an extra flask of oil, to keep their torches burning.

Here’s a little compendium of links to the homilies I have given about the parable, over the years.

The Ten Virgins at Super Bowl XXII (2020)

The Wise Virgins’ Oil (2018)

The Wise Virgins’ Parable (2017)

The Mass is the Oil (2017) I remember giving this one in the basement social hall at St. Francis, while the workers were laying the new hardwood floor in the church above us.

Where is Time Headed (2012)

In Here, Lord? (2011)

Hamlet + Ten Virgins (2011)

If the necessary oil represents a completed manuscript of Ordained by a Predator, sent to a potential publisher, then yours truly is good. Thank you for praying. 🙂 It’s all in the Lord’s hands now.



The Ten Virgins at Super Bowl XXII


The Lord Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe this, the seventh article of the Christian Creed. The parable of the Ten Virgins, which we will hear at Holy Mass tomorrow, helps us to meditate on this article of faith. In the parable, the arrival of the bridegroom at the wedding represents the second coming of Christ. The groom’s arrival represents the final judgment and the consummation of all things. [Spanish]

The virgins in the parable represent all of us who believe in the Creed. The ceremony of an ancient Palestinian wedding involved a torch-lit procession, leading the groom to the couple’s new home. The parable centers around one item in this procession: the oil needed to make the processional torches burn.

The ten young ladies came to the house, to celebrate the marriage of their friends. All ten looked forward to a delightful feast, a party that would last for days. Maybe the young women had thoughts in their minds like, “I will see young Mr. Eligible and Handsome So-and-so at this party!”

TP_278400_LYTT_DWILLIAMS_1These ten had been chosen to participate in the solemn joy by doing a specific sacred office. They were to illuminate the dark night in front of the bridegroom as he made his final steps to the house. Then the feast could begin.

The bridegroom took his time in coming. Maybe his camel had a bum leg. The virgins waited for hours for word that the groom had reached the edge of town. The young ladies got sleepy and dozed off. It was late. No foolishness in any of this.

Among those dozing ten ladies, however, there were two distinct groups. The five members of the first group had thought ahead. They anticipated what would happen when the word came to go out into the night to meet the groom.

At that moment, with no time to spare, each torch-bearer would have to pour a little flagon of oil into her torch, as someone came down the line with a taper to light all the torches. These torches held only enough oil to burn for a half-hour or so—just long enough to escort the groom from the edge of town to the house.

As the ladies dozed, the first group slept in peace. They had little flagons of oil in their pockets. They were ready. They were wise.

Some of you know how my brother and I got to go to Super Bowl XXII, thirty-three years ago. We were goofy teenagers, to be sure, but not altogether foolish. A business associate of my father had given him two real Super Bowl tickets. My father gave them to us. If my brother and I had flown to San Diego and caught the bus to Jack Murphy Stadium, without any tickets in our pockets, that would have been, as the Lord put it, foolish.

That, however, is basically what the other five young ladies did. They came to the Super Bowl with the right jersey on, with their favorite player’s number, and with a placard that read, “Go, Doug Williams!” or “We love the Hogs!” But they never stopped to ask themselves, “How will we get into the stadium?”

The time to light the torches came, and the five fools only then thought to themselves, “Wait. I guess these things require some kind of fuel?”

Which brings us to the decisive question: In the Lord’s parable, what does the oil for the torches represent?

The Lord Jesus Christ will come again to judge. At that moment, which could come anytime, what must we have? What is the ‘ticket’ that we need, to enter the stadium of heaven, where the Washington Redskins will reign as Super Bowl Champions forever?

Seriously: What will make our torches burn, to welcome Christ when He comes? What is the oil we will need then, to participate in the final procession into the Kingdom of God?

I think the answer is so simple, yet so hard to achieve, that we might make this more complicated than we have to. What each of us needs is: a clear conscience.

When Jesus comes, He needs to find us with hearts fundamentally at peace. Since all of us have sinned, that means the oil is Divine Mercy. The tender love of the Savior’s Heart, living inside mine. That alone gives a sinner peace. And it makes me a just and honest person. It makes me into the kind of companion that can forgive a fellow sinner and start over in peace.

Then we can go in and enjoy the wedding.

The Wise Virgins’ Oil


The question that remains, after the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins: What does the oil represent?

We considered this question exactly one year ago. Anyone remember what we came up with? The oil represents prayer. Specifically: praying the Mass.

But our Lord’s parables offer inexhaustible depths of meaning. So let me throw another answer at you. A two-fold answer. The oil in the parable represents:

1. Self-abandonment to divine Providence. Total trust. God’s foolishness is greater than human wisdom, and His weakness is greater than human strength. We live by faith in the unconquerable goodness of the Lord Who governs everything.

2. But total abandonment to divine Providence does not involve our abandoning our capacity for foresight and sound decision-making. The Lord said: Be innocent as doves. He also said…? Be wise as serpents.

–Yesterday I heard someone describe the American bishops as: Wise as doves and innocent as serpents. But let’s leave that aside—

So: The oil is total abandonment to divine Providence and also prudence. The virtue that “finds both the true good in every circumstance and the right means of achieving it,” as the Catechism puts it. Catechism goes on: “Prudence applies moral principles to particular cases and overcomes doubt about good and evil.”

Another definition, to paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas: “Prudence means both skill at thinking about how to live a wholesome, good life and skill at putting the good thinking into practice.”

Prudence requires self-control, honesty, and courage. By the same token, no one can exercise self-control–or stay honest and brave—without prudence. In other words: No one can think right about doing right without doing right. But no one can do right without thinking and judging right.

Prudence is not “policy.” It is skill at applying good policies. But, of course, without good policies–without good principles–prudence cannot correctly resolve any problem. A prudent person is a principled person who also sees reality clearly enough to know which policy should guide you right now.

We need this oil. May God help us to keep it in our flasks.

The Wise Virgins Parable

William Blake, Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins

The wise virgins waited faithfully for the bridegroom to arrive. Everyone knew the groom would come; they just didn’t know when. In those days, even well-meaning bridegrooms could get delayed. The camel might go lame. Or a sudden rain might wash out a road entirely. Or enemy troops might take a whole swath of territory, making it impassable to you, so you had to go way around. [Click HERE for Spanish.]

So the virgins, not to mention all the other wedding guests, had to wait. But they didn’t mind, because the groom’s arrival would mean so much joy. The bridegroom was coming to consummate something wonderfully beautiful–to open a new chapter of life for the family, to give a new future to the bride. The wedding feast brought immense happiness to everyone, because it showed God’s faithfulness and power. A wedding meant that time itself is pregnant with a future, not sterile and dying.

And there’s more–more cause for joy at a wedding. We know that God Himself, having taken flesh, has become the devoted Bridegroom of the human race. The fathers of the Second Vatican Council listed the images of human salvation. Here’s the final image on the list:

The Church is the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb… Christ loved His Church and delivered Himself up for Her. He unites the Church to Himself by an unbreakable covenant, subjecting Her to Himself in love and fidelity. The life of the Church is hidden with Christ in God until we appear in glory with the Bridegroom.

So the wise virgins waited patiently for the tall, dark, and handsome gentleman. The bridegroom in the parable represents the divine Bridegroom, Jesus Himself. He is our champion and our beloved, our hero Who, by His humble obedience to the will of the Father, has conquered death and every evil. He will come again in glory, and He will judge all things, setting all things to rights. Then He will reign forever over a kingdom of unimaginable, peaceful, splendid blessedness.

He will come. We just don’t know when. The virgins in the parable had to wait longer than expected, because, as we read: “The bridegroom was long delayed.”

Long delayed. Maybe 2,000 years? People might think: If Christ really intended to return in glory, wouldn’t He have done it by now? He must have been a crazy lunatic, rather than the real Messiah! 2,000 years is too long to wait.

torahscrollBut we don’t know from ‘long,’ really. Two thousand years may seem long to us, but not to God. As St. Peter put it, “To the Lord a thousand years are like a passing day.” Our perspective on the enormity of time is patethically limited. Two little millennia? Compared to the Pleistocene Age? The Ice Age lasted over 2.5 million years. Christ could wait another 200,000 years, or 200,000,000 years to come back, and it wouldn’t make Him any more or less omniscient and omnipotent than He is.

The whole point of the parable is: it’s not our job to know when the Lord will come again; it’s our job to be ready when He does come.

Which brings us back to the wise virgins. They were ready when the bridegrooom came, as opposed to the foolish ones. The foolish virgins had foolishly run off to go shopping at midnight. But the wise virgins were waiting patiently, so they stood ready when the unexpected hour arrived.

What distinguished the wise virgins from the foolish? The wise ones had flasks of oil with them. So the $10,000 question is: What do these flasks of oil in the parable represent?

There were five flasks. Five wise virgins, five flasks. So maybe the flasks represent the books of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Torah–which means… Law. Or teaching, guidance, fatherly instruction. Or: Divine Wisdom.

These virgins did not have wisdom in the worldly sense. They happily waited deep into the night, even though they had no idea when the bridegroom would arrive. Worldly virgins would long since have gone off to play field hockey, or watch Dancing with the Stars, or get their hair done. But the wise virgins of the parable chose to spend their long evening waiting patiently by the door.

They possessed a non-worldly kind of wisdom, a supernatural wisdom. They grasped the ultimate goal of history; they had a share in the mind of God Himself. They held fast in faith to the certainty that the bridegroom would come. They did not doubt. They never wavered in their eagerness to meet Him. They persevered in their attentive vigil, even deep into the darkness of night.

They had the wisdom of true Christian faith. While they waited, they could not see the feast that had been prepared for the wedding guests. But they held on to the promise of good things yet to come. The gift of divine wisdom gave them a little taste of the delights that await us in heaven. They awaited the surpassing glory of God being all in all.

The Mass is the Oil

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew Holy Sepulchre
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew together at the tomb of Christ

In the parable of the ten virgins, five of them had something, and five did not. Having that something made a great difference—all the difference. The five who had it entered the wedding feast. The five who did not found a locked door, and they heard God say to them, “I do not know you.”

Oil. Oil for the lamps. This is a parable. What does the oil represent?

Pope Francis and the bishops have made today the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Holy Father issued a joint statement with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A brief, penetrating, and captivating statement. Come to my Vespers talk on Sunday, and we will study every word of it [4:30pm, St. Joseph’s, Martinsville, Virginia. Parish dinner to follow!]

Right now let’s focus on one sentence. The statement of course exhorts all Christians to pray: to pray that all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ, to thank the Creator and pledge our commitment to care for His handiwork. Then the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew write:

An objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world.

The oil in the parable is: prayer. And not just any prayer, but prayer in the Holy Spirit; prayer in which I, me, myself truly speak and communicate and open my heart, but not unilaterally. Rather: when I pray in the Holy Spirit I am myself only in co-operation with God.

So we can be even more precise: The oil is our regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist. When we participate in Mass, we pray—we ourselves, thanking God, asking Him for help, begging His mercy. But as much as the Mass is our work, much more so is it God’s. After all, in the Holy Mass, the triune Lord continues the Incarnation, and unites us to the mystery of His infinite love bodily. In the Mass, God makes our co-operation with Him as physically intimate as physical intimacy can possibly be. As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation…The Eucharist is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love… The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration. (Laudato Si’ 236)

This is the oil we need.

Faith Fuels our Lamps

This is the will of God, your holiness. (I Thessalonians 4:3)

We believe in God and love Him above everything else. God has a will. God has a will for us.

What fuels our lamps?

How about acts of faith?

Yes, Lord. I believe. I believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I believe in Jesus, true God and true man. I believe in the Blessed Sacrament, in Confession, in all the sacraments. I believe in heaven. I believe in Your plan, Lord.

ENGLISH VERSION OF YEAR OF FAITH LOGOYes, Lord. I believe. I believe what the saints have believed. I believe what the Pope believes. I believe what the Scriptures teach. What the Catholic Church believes, has always believed, and always will believe—until You come again in glory: I, too, believe.

Yes, Lord. I believe. You are holy and good. You will the good. You will that, when all is said and done, I will know You as I am now known by You. Amen.

In the meantime, I believe and hope and love You and my neighbor. Tomorrow will take care of itself. Today I believe.

“Lord, I believe.” How many times a day? Five, ten, twenty, fifty?

Faith fuels our lamps, and the Bridegroom promises to come when we least expect. So we need to keep the lamps burning all the time, with faith.

In Here, Lord?

The Lord be with you… (et cum spirituo tuo)

Weddings in ancient Israel involved a number of customs we do not observe. The business in the parable about virgins waiting into the night with lighted lamps may leave us a little confused. When we go to weddings, we don’t usually see that.

But the end of the parable touches a familiar chord: At a wedding banquet, you want to be inside, as opposed outside. The food, music, and dancing take place inside. Outside, it is either cold, or there are a lot of gnats, mosquitoes, and crickets.

Or—even if it is a beautiful, crisp fall day, and the wedding banquet takes place on the lawn or in the garden—you still want to be inside the hedge or the fence, not outside it. You don’t want to show up at the garden gate and have someone say, “Ah. No dice. Take a walk. I never knew you.”

When the Lord Jesus walked the earth, He wound up inside sometimes and outside sometimes.

Continue reading “In Here, Lord?”

Hamlet & Ten Virgins

If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all.

Hamlet says this line, just before entering into a duel with a treacherous opponent—the duel which will cost Hamlet his life.

What made him so confident and ready, even when he suspected that foul play and murder awaited him?

Hamlet’s confidence in the face of death did not stem from self-satisfaction. Quite the contrary, Hamlet is famous for tormenting himself with self-doubt. He repeatedly accuses himself of pathetic cowardice. Hamlet’s admirers, like Ophelia, had thought him the paragon of princeliness, a true Renaissance gentleman. But he searched his own soul and found confusion, indecision, and weakness.

Yet the melancholy Dane stood ready and peaceful when doom befell him. Where did his readiness come from? From his most conspicuous quality: Zeal for the truth consumed him. Hamlet never lived by self-serving delusions. He did not fear death, because he regarded it as the inevitable fact that it is.

[Click HERE to read the parable of the ten virgins.]

The foolish virgins brought no oil with them. They had not bothered to consider their situation. They lived in a fantasy world where oil lamps burn forever and never run out. They accepted the invitation to the wedding without thinking what the night could really be like. Their heads were filled with conceits about pretty dresses, and wine flowing, and music.

But sometimes bridegrooms are long delayed. Camels can go lame; roads can be washed out by floods; enemies can attack. Pretty fantasies from bridal catalogues can get scotched by the inconveniences of real life.

The wise virgins were ready because the truth interested them. They anticipated that they could be in for a long night. “My lamp only holds so much oil. I had better bring a flask with some extra. If I don’t need the extra oil tonight, I will burn it when I have to stay up to clean the table linen tomorrow night.”

Reality may not be glamorous. But it’s all we’ve got.