During the church year we celebrate a number of solemnities such as Christmas and Easter. Some of these celebrations are so significant that the church mandates a vigil for that feast. For example, Christmas Eve and the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil. During the time of vigil, the church participates in an ancient exercise of watching. Jesus invited his disciples to watch as he prepared for the Transfiguration and went off to pray in Gethsemane; so such watching has a long history within the church, dating back to its very beginning. When we watch we also pray in anticipation of the event we will soon commemorate.
In order to understand this week’s Gospel, it is helpful to think of the 10 bridesmaids anticipating the arrival of the bridegroom as an activity of watching. Watching itself is active because of the preparation and anticipation involved. Not all of the bridesmaids are watching since not all come prepared for the long delay. Those who did not bring sufficient oil for their lamps could be considered as merely waiting. Waiting is a passive activity. To watch is to anticipate an event and actively seek its arrival. To wait is to endure the lag between the preparation of an event and its actual occurrence. For example, we wait in a grocery store line for our turn at the checkout counter. There is no anticipation in the grocery store line only the desire to be finished. To watch, we are attentive and prepare ourselves for that upcoming event. For example, the child who anticipates a birthday party actively watches all the preparations for the celebration and prepares for it.
Since Jesus compares the coming of the bridegroom to the arrival of the reign of God, his basic exhortation in the parable counsels us to prepare and to watch for the coming reign of God. A Christian does not live by tolerating impatient waiting, but rather watches.
The distinction between waiting and watching helps us as we move through the liturgical year. Since we are just a short time away from Advent, the church’s major season for watching, the “Parable of the Ten Virgins” encourages us at this time to prepare and to watch. We will experience several types of watching during the coming season. There will be the watch for the final coming of the Lord. There will be John the Baptist’s encouragement to repent, to prepare for and to welcome the Lord. Finally, there will be active anticipation for the coming feast of Jesus’ birth. In the reading from the Old Testament, we hear that we should watch for wisdom at dawn and … “wisdom is the perfection of prudence and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be set free from care.” To watch is an activity of true wisdom and preparation for the reign of God.
Fr. Treloar, an assistant director at Jesuit Retreat House, Oshkosh, has served as a professor, lecturer, author and academic administrator.