HOMILY: Heaven and the NBA
I was reading the spiritual memoir of a Jesuit who, as a young man, was assigned to work with the Missionaries of Charity- Mother Teresa’s order- only a few years after they began their work in Calcutta. The first month of this work came as a shock to him, who had never seen such destitution, such helpless poverty. For him, even the smell was unbearable. He was cleaning the sores of people whose bodies were literally rotting though they were still alive- it was too much. Yet he remembers watching Mother do all these things- and more unbearable tasks- with ease, relentlessly, with her famous smile.
After a time, he found his work impossible. He hated those he served, he felt no spiritual consolation in the service, and he saw no hope for the future, Calcutta was never going to change. He remembered finally speaking to one of the Sisters about his trial, expecting to be shamed, called weak, asked to leave. Instead, she smiled, told him it was perfectly normal to suffer in this way, for to truly love, to put the good of the other before yourself in such a radical way as the Missionaries of Charity were called was so counter to our selfish nature that it was as if we were putting our old self to death- “that death is painful,” she said.
This story calls to mind St. Clare of Assisi, who tells us:
“Love that cannot suffer is not worthy of the name.”
What does this story have to do with our gospel for today? I hope it will become obvious as we go into it- so let’s dig in.
We are presented today with another parable on the Kingdom of God- something we have been meditating on the past ten weeks, and a central theme in Jesus ministry. Today, He compares the KOG to ten virgins, who took their lamps out to meet the Bridegroom. Obviously all these women desire to enter the wedding feast because they show up with their lamps, ready to process with the bridegroom. But he is delayed- why? We don’t know, but regardless, the women wait.
Suddenly the bridegroom appears, and they are called to go and join the procession. The five wise virgins are ready, they have plenty of oil, their flame is burning bright. The foolish virgins have let their flames die, they are out of fuel, and thus incapable of joining the wedding procession.
What exactly does this parable tell us? Well, let’s examine the parts: who are the virgins? They are all the baptized, we have all been washed clean in baptism, given the light of Christ- the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Yet, the crux of the story is the oil, the fuel. What is the fuel? The means by which we keep this divine life, the light of Christ, burning.
And this- the fuel- is the crucial point. It is what separates those wise from the foolish. For it is not only a matter of desire. All ten virgins obviously desire to enter the feast, yet because it was not immediately translated into a way of being and concrete deeds- they could not enter.
Let me give you another analogy to try and clarify this, because I think it is crucial to our understanding of the Christian life. I have been thinking a lot about basketball recently being a new coach, trying to teach the game, and it has proven a veritable treasure trove for spiritual analogy.
Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to play in the NBA (or at least at Creighton or Pepperdine, or some other decent D1 school). So, from a young age I put in a lot of work toward that goal. My doctor told me I was going to be 6’4”, so really there was nothing stopping me from playing at a high level. Yet, in time other sports took my attention away from basketball (not to mention I only made 6’1”), and I stopped putting in that daily work, so my basketball still-set waned. By college I was not a D1 player, and the NBA might as well have been a different universe. Was it still a vague desire of mine to play ball at that level- of course, it would have been a blast.
Yet, if Steve Kerr had called me up and said, “Kirby Longo, Golden State has drafted you, I expect you on the court tomorrow.” What would happen? It would be an absolute nightmare, to put me on the court with Derrick Westbrook, Karl Anthony-Towns or the Greek Freak? I can’t think of many things more miserable, it would feel like some surreal form of torture. Why? Because I am not capable of playing at that level, I don’t have the skills, the capacity, I quit working toward it years ago. Yet that’s me- for those who have the skills, who have the capacity to play at that level, being drafted my Golden State would be a dream come true!
This, I hope, can elucidate the image of the five foolish virgins, and even more, our spiritual lives. The five wise virgins are those who spent their lives- that period of waiting while the bridegroom tarried- preparing themselves for the great feast. Meanwhile, the foolish virgins are the spiritual equivalent of my basketball life: they may have a vague desire to enter the feast, yet they stopped living in accord with that desire long ago, thus the oil- the fuel necessary to jump into action when called upon- has emptied.
Now to us- we all, as baptized persons- have at least the vague desire for heaven, the desire to “meet the Lord in the air” when he returns, not in some rapture, but in the resurrection of the dead. Yet this is always the question- are we preparing our souls for that meeting, whether it is in His second coming or in the end of our earthly lives. He is delayed- have we given up the dream, or perhaps never really taken it seriously to begin with? If so, when we die and we arrive at the judgement gates, we will be like the foolish virgins, or like me suiting up for Golden State. By that I mean we will simply be incapable of entering. For as one Erasmo remarks, when we die, all “Hypocritical masks or adamant protestations of sterling intentions and a vague ‘commitment’ to the good” are stripped away and who we really are is laid bare.
What is heaven? It is a place of perfect love, not the watered down, romanticized love of our culture, but the brutally difficult selfless love the Jesuit in the story I told had to learn in Calcutta. If we do not let God transform us, if we do not let God put to death our selfish desires in this life, we will simply be incapable of operating in heaven.
You see, the judgement we will face at the gates of heaven is not God looking at his checklist of our life and seeing whether we made the cut. God desires to transform us in grace- to make us saints in this life, to teach us to love that we can be free to enter the gates of heaven joyfully! If we do not learn to love, we will stand at the gates of heaven with our soul bared, and it will appear as miserable as the streets of Calcutta appeared to that young, selfish Jesuit. God will not need to condemn us, for we will flee to a place where we can be comfortable, where we can serve only ourselves as we did in this life- we will flee to hell.
We are called in this time leading up to the celebration of God’s incarnation, his advent, when he came to teach us how to truly love, to meditate on whether we are letting him transform us. That young selfish Jesuit endured the death of his selfish nature and grew to be a holy man. That is our calling, yet if Christ came today- would you be ready to follow him in procession or have you let his divine light flicker and die? For me, I know I am selfish, this homily convicts me, I am not a saint, I have failed to let Christ form my heart. Now is as good of a time as any to begin again the work of love.
32nd Sunday OT_Cycle A