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Stay alert: for the Kingdom of God is at hand

Fr. Lou DelFra | Wednesday, November 9, 2011

As the Liturgical year comes to a close, the Gospels are becoming increasingly apocalyptic in tone: questions to Jesus about the end of the world; parables from Jesus about the last days. One of the first came this past Sunday: the Parable of the Ten Virgins — five of whom are prepared with lamps full of oil to greet the Bridegroom, and five of whom are not. While the five unprepared virgins are away buying oil, the bridegroom arrives, enters the wedding feast with the five prepared virgins, and the door is locked. “So stay awake,” concludes Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.” End of parable. The door is locked. The end of the world. It is not in our hands, so be prepared.

Yet, as important as such a reading is, it seems to me that it is only part of the meaning of the parable. What else is the parable about?

Perhaps, in response, I could tell a simple personal story. It would be one any of us could tell, because something similar has happened to each of us in our own way. I was in my first year of teaching middle school religion. Like all teachers, I had one of those trouble students — the one who just drove me nuts on a daily basis. Oddly enough, the most troublesome students would often be the ones most likely to stop by my classroom at the end of the day — mostly, just to bother me some more!

So this student would often hang around in my classroom at the end of the day when I would be grading papers or getting the next day’s lessons prepared. I was always too busy for him. Or, more accurately, I made sure I was too busy for him!

Then one day in the spring semester, after almost a year of his antics, the weather had turned nice again so I asked him if he wanted to go outside and have a baseball catch. We grabbed some gloves and a baseball, walked outside and began to throw. And, as happens during baseball catches, we started to talk. We talked about his other classes, his friends at school and then I asked him about his family. As we tossed the ball back and forth, I noticed that he had begun to cry. So we stopped throwing and started walking. And I heard the story of how this student’s parents had been going through a painful separation throughout that whole year, and had now decided to divorce.

For the next three years, I accompanied this student as he adjusted, sometimes painfully, to this new life. I think I served as an instrument of grace for him, providing some stability and care. And he served as an instrument of grace for me, calling me, at the very beginning of my teaching career, to slow down and come to a deeper understanding of what was happening in my students’ lives.

But it took me eight months of his persistent antics to finally catch on, and if he wasn’t so persistent, I would have missed it entirely. Or, in the imagery of the parable of the Ten Virgins, the door on that opportunity for grace would have closed and locked.

We could each tell many such stories of missed opportunities due to busyness or distraction — all kinds of legitimate and not-so-legitimate reasons. We have all missed movements of God’s Spirit, right in front of us, in a person or an event or a quiet moment of prayer. So here is a second reading of Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins, and many of the apocalyptic readings we will hear in these last weeks of the year. Be alert, not just because the Kingdom of God will come in all its fullness at the end of time. Be alert because “the Kingdom of God is in your midst. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Can we see it? Are we ready? Or are we too busy and distracted?

As I reflect on the Gospels and think about this encounter with my student I almost missed, I am struck by how often Jesus encounters a person who could easily be seen as inconvenient — a leper, a blind person, a deaf person, a Pharisee or his own disciples fighting. He never sees such people as an obstacle that he must get around so that he can continue his work of building up the Kingdom. Instead, he sees the Kingdom trying to break forth, right there, in that person who is right before him.

Jesus’ life is one of utter conviction that “the Kingdom of God is in our midst. The Kingdom of God is at hand.” He calls us, his disciples, to the same conviction.

Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC, is the Director of Pastoral Life for ACE and a member of Campus Ministry. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily that of The Observer.