The Scripture readings at the end of the liturgical year convey a sense of urgency, one that might feel a bit unwelcomed when the secular world takes on a pressurized atmosphere as well. We need to make a distinction between the two, however. In the secular world there is a sense of rushing to be prepared for holidays ushered in earlier each year with a dizzying array of demands, hence ‘upping the ante’ on the urgency of being ready. No matter what we do the holiday season can encroach upon our peace in what feels like an attempt to crush us rather than being a time of enjoyment. Though it is easy to be pulled into the tide of menus, music, gifts, and the exterior trappings, we do these things mostly because we truly want to be merry and we want to be welcoming. We endure the pressure, often rationalizing that it only happens once a year. In contrast, the urgency of the liturgical year is about making sure our spiritual household is in order, being prepared for the Lord to come “at a moment you do not expect,” so that we might greet Him with joy. The good news, however, is that the two attitudes do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is important to take the time for gratitude at Thanksgiving and for generosity during Advent and Christmas, but it is also important to keep it in perspective: it is about living the Christian life as disciples, being prepared for the coming of the Lord at whatever time He returns, thereby putting Him first in our lives. We are looking into the light of eternity, which is why at the completion of the liturgical year we focus on the end of time and the coming of Christ the King. And that is what all of this is really all about.
The point we often miss is that the end of the liturgical year and the beginning of the next is less about urgency and more about wisdom: if we learn to see and hear, to be alert to the things of God, we will indeed be prepared for His coming. Being prepared, in other words, is the wise thing to do. On the 32nd Sunday of the year we heard the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. (Matthew 25:1-13) At first glance it seems unfair that the virgins labeled as wise do not share their oil with those labeled as foolish when the Bridegroom finally arrives. Throughout our entire lives we are taught to share, (and perhaps can even pick out some Bible verses about the virtue of sharing), and here Jesus tells us that the wise ones were right not to share? What gives? That is because this parable is not about the virtue of generosity; it is about wisdom. Those called wise lived their entire lives in a state of readiness for this moment by offering "a ray from heaven”* to others, doing all the good things which we are taught by Jesus, such as mercy, kindness, love, and yes, generosity. Therefore when the moment came for the Bridegroom’s arrival, they could not give the ‘produce of their good deeds’ to the ones who squandered opportunities for growth and perhaps lived a bit selfishly. We can share lots of things, but we cannot give to another person the result of what we have gained spiritually through a lifetime of holiness; we can only grow within our own hearts and souls. Hence the wise virgins could not give away some of their holiness, (wisdom), since that is impossible. We each have to do this for ourselves and perhaps that is why there is an air of urgency. Holiness cannot be subdivided, bought or sold, but rather it is attained by a combination of our own efforts at love and the power of the Holy Spirit as gift.
Wisdom, therefore, is learning to discern, to see and hear through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rather than waiting until the eleventh hour and risking what happened to the foolish virgins, we are urged to do the work of growing in holiness through prayer and deeds throughout our lives so that no matter when the Lord returns for us, we are ready. The vision we learn is to discern the hand of God offering opportunities for goodness; it is to acknowledge that He is with us in protection, comfort, and mercy; it is to see His glory expressed as in "a ray from heaven.” An example of this is in the inspiration received by an artist. A painter of sacred art, for example – (though this can be true for all artists in any medium) – sees something of the divine in a type of vision, an inspiration. This is not necessarily a vision such as an apparition, though in some ways to the painter it is. The painter sees beauty where others may not and therefore desires to express it on canvas. He or she can never truly recreate the vision, but attempts to convey the essence of the immense beauty or the symbolism contained in what was experienced. This is a process in which we participate; it begins with a gift from God, but in order to allow the inspiration to take hold, we, as also the artist, have to take the time to grow in discernment through our prayer and works, and hence to grow in wisdom.
Sometimes this vision is needed as a return to wholeness, especially when we have experienced a debilitating wound or have suffered a loss. In one of his letters Vincent van Gogh beautifully expressed this: “How good it is to walk along an empty beach and look at the gray-green sea with its long, white streaks of waves when you are feeling depressed. But if you have a need for something great, something infinite, something in which you can see God, you don’t have to look far: I think I have seen something deeper, more infinite, more eternal than an ocean, expressed in the eyes of an infant when it wakes in the morning and crows with pleasure, or laughs because it can see the sun shine in its cradle. If there is a rayon d’en haut, a ‘ray from heaven,’ perhaps it can be found there.”* This is the same vision as the artist who has learned to express the divine, and of the wise virgin who has learned through trial, error, and the desire for holiness to recognize and pursue wisdom so as to be ready when the Bridegroom arrives and ushers in eternity.
On the last Sunday of the liturgical year we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. It is not by accident that we end one liturgical year and begin the next (the season of Advent) by preparing for His coming. The message is loud and clear: we must always be preparing for the coming of Jesus our King! Therefore, we learn that it is wisdom to have oil in our lamps, to keep our talents at hand, not buried as if underground, and to live our lives doing works of mercy. (Matthew 25) It is wisdom to offer kindness, generosity, mercy, forgiveness and love to our families and friends in gratitude for their presence in our lives expressed in a meal on Thanksgiving or in gift-giving at Christmas. But it is also wisdom to offer those same things to our other neighbors: the stranger, the alien, the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the marginalized. It is wisdom to prepare for Christmas, but without forgetting Advent, which is the preparation time when we listen intently to our own hearts and the hearts of others so that we recognize Christ when He arrives. Yes, we make merry and enjoy this once-a-year time to express love for our families and friends; we enjoy the music, shiny lights, decorations, and gatherings as a sign of gratitude and joy in His eventual coming, but we keep in perspective that the urgency is a longing for Him, not to be displaced by a despair for the lack of time or means, and to only emphasize the externals. At a time when so many are realizing that material things are fleeting we need to help our neighbors to find something greater in our continued love and care for them. It is in being prepared, in our expanded vision to see the presence of the Lord and to welcome Him into our own hearts, that we can help those who are in need, thus enabling them to see the presence of Jesus surrounding them with generosity and care as well. Therefore let us become that ray from heaven for those near to our hearts as well as to those who are “friends not yet met” by sharing the fruits of our preparedness as witness to the coming of Christ the King into the world.
May we become as rays from heaven to those who are in need or who are searching for God! May we obtain wisdom as we seek to grow in holiness through our prayer and through acts of love and mercy! May we seek Jesus our King, both in working to be prepared for His coming in the ‘disguise’ of the stranger, as well as in glory at the end of time! May we find peace and joy in the coming weeks, rather than to allow it to become displaced by frenzied activity! May the mourning and those who find the holidays burdensome be comforted, and may we also recognize the loving hand of God in the outstretched hand of those who care! And may we prepare a place for Christ the King at our tables this Thanksgiving as we share the bounty of the gifts we have received, those seen and unseen! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
* The phrase 'a ray from heaven' and the entire quote come from a letter written by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo in 1882. The letter is found in Van Gogh's Letters: The Mind of the Artist in Paintings, Drawings, and Words, 1875-1890, edited by H. Anna Suh; page 69.
Note: The next post will be on December 4.
1. This is one of my photos taken in Taormina, Sicily, Italy, a decorative sign on the wall outside a granita shop. Granita is a type of ice, not gelato, but more of a Sicilian version of what some call Italian ice. It is very tasty and refreshing. This shop had other sweets, (dolci), espresso, and the like. These tiles are typical of ceramic work done by Sicilian artisans and are found all over the island. I chose this photo because it depicts a place of many delicious treats, reminding me of my childhood: my Sicilian relatives would come with baked goods which only were indulged in during the holidays. To find out more on granita click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Granita
2. This is a painting of the wise and foolish virgins,(of unknown origin.) I like it because of its simplicity, but also because it depicts the separation of the virgins: the wise with their lamps burning are on one side and the foolish with their empty lamps are on the other. This is in keeping with the final teaching in the chapter where this parable is found (Matthew 25) in which Jesus spoke of the separation of the righteous on his right like sheep and the selfish on his left like goats.
3. This is an icon called Mary Most Holy Mother of All Nations by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose to use it here because it is the most beautiful icon I have ever seen. Keep in mind that taste is subjective and what moves one may not move another. However, I also chose it because this is a fabulous example of what I was describing: an inspired response to a vision, if you will. I say this because an icon is the result of a religious experience; all iconographers pray intensely over the work they do. You can purchase a copy of this icon in one of many different formats at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/featured/mary-most-holy-mother-of-all-nations-080-william-hart-mcnichols.html. If you want to order some other cards or gifts, you can check out his entire website at http://frbillmcnichols-sacredimages.com/ (Remember, I gain nothing from making this suggestion except the joy of sharing the work of Fr. Bill.)
4. This painting is also the response to a vision, as it were. This painting is called Seascape near Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer by Vincent van Gogh. (1888) I chose it for this place in the blog as a reference to the quote which was written in a letter four years prior to this painting, but the painting is nonetheless appropriate. I grew up by the water and therefore I can understand how the beauty of the sea can evoke a sense of the infinite and therefore, of God.
5. This is a painting of Christ the King by Blessed Fra Angelico. I chose it because I love how Jesus is looking intently at the world, depicted as the globe, with His hand raised over it. I like to think He is blessing the world, but it is quite possible this is a scene of judgment in which He might be ready to separate the sheep from the goats. But do not forget that with judgment also comes mercy. Thank God!
6. This is a brilliant painting called The Bonaventure Pine by the artist Paul Signac. (1893) It is painted in a style called 'pointillism.' The technique is the usage of dots of color (the paint used here is oil) to construct the larger image. If you enlarge the painting, you can see the individual dots which work amazingly to create and define all the subjects being depicted in the foreground and the background. There are no brushstrokes, only dots of color. I chose it because it reminded me of the discernment needed, the closer look involved to grow in wisdom. The wise (spiritually) are able to connect the dots, so to speak, to see both the individual as well as the collective picture. Here are two wonderful explanations of this painting if you are interested:
Heart Speaks to Heart