The Sunday Project
The God of Surprises
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time |
Resplendent and unfading is wisdom, and she is readily perceived by those who love her, and found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of their desire; Whoever watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her sitting by his gate. For taking thought of wisdom is the perfection of prudence, and whoever for her sake keeps vigil shall quickly be free from care; because she makes her own rounds, seeking those worthy of her, and graciously appears to them in the ways, and meets them with all solicitude.
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, console one another with these words.
Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, ‘Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise ones replied, 'No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.’ While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, ‘Lord, Lord, open the door for us!’ But he said in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
On Pentecost Sunday 2014, Pope Francis told thousands of pilgrims, “Listen up. If the Church is alive, it must always surprise. A Church that doesn’t have the capacity to surprise is a weak, sickened, and dying Church. It should be taken to the recovery room at once.”
Within the last few weeks, I, along with other queer Catholics all over the world, have found myself surprised by the Church. On a seemingly normal weekday morning after a Zoom meeting with my boss while teleworking from home about two weeks ago, one of my close friends texted me a link to a breaking news story about Pope Francis endorsing same-sex civil unions in an interview as a part of a new documentary. I was emotional, shedding tears not only because I was happy, excited, and shocked, but also because I was unsure if I could trust Pope Francis’s words. As that day went on, I read the sentiments on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my supposed siblings in Christ in the Catholic Church. I heard the dismissal of this event in the words of commentators, journalists, and authors as yet another mistranslation of Pope Francis. I felt anger, rage, and sadness as I read the official statements of bishops in my country of the United States who are always all too eager to do violence to the Church in the ways that they speak of the LGBTQIA+ community.
My excitement and surprise was quickly overtaken by the realization, that, for months, my humanity as a Catholic lesbian would be once again up for debate by fellow lay Catholics, bishops, and Church leaders on social media, in my family, in the news, and in parish bulletins everywhere. The unexpected, out-of-the-blue sentiment shared by Pope Francis no longer felt like a pleasant, welcomed surprise. Instead, I was confronted with the memories of my Catholic friends who turned their back on me, the shouting match with my own father at Christmas dinner last year, and the emotional work that I have done to prepare myself to lose everything at any time- my successful start to a career in the Catholic ministry world, many years of theological education, and most especially, my own faith- if the wrong people find out about the fullness of who I am. This surprise of Pope Francis came to me, unprepared, as a thief in the night reminding me of my own helplessness. It tugged with all its might at the seams of the delicate tension with which I hold my life as a queer person working in the Catholic Church. This surprise began to morph into an ambush.
This Sunday’s set of readings is where I can find the tension of pleasant surprise and violent ambush that Pope Francis’s remarks brought into my life captured in the words of scripture. In all three readings, we see a tension between being awake and falling asleep, being prepared and being caught off guard, and being sought out and being snuck up upon.
In the first reading from the book of Wisdom, Lady Wisdom is described as “readily perceived by those who love her,” and “graciously appears” to those “worthy of her”; she seeks out those who seek her, going quickly to meet those who desire her. Far from an experience of ambush, Lady Wisdom can already be found waiting for those who desire her, appearing to them with grace and solicitude. She also “makes herself known” to those who watch for her, not lurking or hiding in the shadows, but with a sense of urgency to attend to their needs. Lady Wisdom’s appearance in the lives of those who desire her is marked by a desire for encounter and closeness. Today’s second reading continues this theme of closeness that Lady Wisdom brings into our imagination. Jesus “will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” into God’s kingdom. In this reading, we hear words of love, tenderness, and closeness in the way that Jesus seeks communion with us so that “we shall always be with the Lord.” Like Lady Wisdom in the first reading, God is seen as one who first seeks us out, anticipating and responding to our desire. God, through Jesus, gathers up those who are asleep, seeking not just proximity, but intimacy and relationship with God’s children.
Matthew’s gospel introduces a tension to the series of readings. Jesus’s parable of the ten virgins shows not the anticipatory, loving seeking and waiting of Lady Wisdom, or the closeness with God that Jesus brings to God’s beloved children. Instead, this parable presents a rigid, more challenging vision: a bridegroom and several wise virgins who are unforgiving and unmerciful. In this parable, we are introduced to ten virgins who have already been sorted into two camps, “wise” or “foolish.” When the foolish virgins fall asleep and prey to their unpreparedness, the wise virgins refuse to assist them. Finally, after they miss the announcement of the appearance of the bridegroom, they are turned away from the wedding feast with the words,“Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Perhaps, the “foolish” virgins felt ambushed at being unprepared for the coming of the Bridegroom, a far cry from the closeness and anticipation with which Jesus and Lady Wisdom seek their beloved out in the first and second readings. When considered in this light, tension rises to the surface; while surprise connotes intimacy, anticipation for the beloved, and closeness, an ambush evokes division, categorization, and exclusion.
So what does this tension of surprise and ambush call the Church, and queer Catholics to?
I think the answer is best discerned imaginatively. What might have happened differently in the Gospel if the foolish virgins desired above everything else to be united with everyone else at the wedding feast? What might have shifted in the narrative of this Gospel if the wise virgins would have shared their oil with the foolish? What might have resulted if the foolish virgins pushed back on the bridegroom’s exclusion, fueled by their desire to celebrate with their friends and family at the wedding feast? Today’s parable might not have ended in exclusion and locked gates, but with open arms and laughter.
Today’s readings call us to imagine the reign of God as one of closeness, tenderness, and gentle surprise. They call us to fan the flames of our desire and hope to be a celebrated part of the Church, not separated by ambushes of division and exclusion, but known and loved in the family of God. They ask us to read the signs of the times to discern when the God of closeness and encounter is at work in the Church through surprise, and when, as a family of queer Catholics, to protect and accompany one another when we are threatened with ambush and isolation. They remind us that the Holy Spirit brings to us a boldness to push back on exclusion, hate, and violence, even if that pushing back means resisting just by existing in the life of the Church. Ultimately, these readings remind us that though our Church is wounded repeatedly by fallen human beings, God is a God of surprises, not of ambush. God seeks to love us through intimacy, relationship, and closeness, and never violence, hatred, or subjugation.
Just as Pope Francis reminded us in the quote at the beginning of this reflection and through his words in the past few weeks that surprise is a sign of a Church that is alive and awake, he also reminds us that God responds to our pain through closeness:
“God's answer to our pain is a closeness, a presence that accompanies us, that doesn't leave us alone. Jesus made himself the same as us and for this reason we have him near us, to cry with us in the most difficult moments of our lives. Let us look at him, entrust him with our questions, our sorrows, our anger."
How can we, as queer Catholics, further the work of the surprises that the Holy Spirit has in store for the Church by seeking to come close to others, in the face of their exclusion, suffering, and separation?