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Virgins, vigilance, and judgment

On the Readings for Sunday, November 8, 2020

The wise virgins and Christ stand on the right side of the right door to Strasbourg Cathedral (Rebecca Kennison/

• Wis 6:12-16
• Psa 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
• 1 Thess 4:13-18
• Matt 25:1-13

A first-century Jewish wedding began after nightfall. The bridesmaids, after spending time with the bride, would go out to meet the bridegroom. Since it was dark, they would carry some sort of light, either an oil lamp or a torch made of oil-soaked rags. They would then escort the bridegroom to the bride. The wedding party then made their way through the village, usually taking a long and meandering route in order to share their joy with as many of the townspeople as possible. They eventually went to the bridegroom’s home, where a great banquet awaited all of the family members and guests.

The parable of the ten virgins takes place within this festive and joyful context, yet the final message is a sober exhortation to be properly prepared. The virgins are apparently the bridesmaids who were to escort the bridegroom (along with his bride) to his home and the banquet. They awaited the arrival of the bridegroom, but he was “long delayed”. Why? No reason is given, but the focus is not on the reason for the delay, but on the preparedness of the virgins.

It is striking that all of the virgins “became drowsy and fell asleep”, but that half of them, upon awaking, needed oil. Those five desperately demanded that the five wise virgins share some of the oil they had brought along in case there was a delay. However, if the wise virgins shared the oil, the fuel would be quickly consumed and they would risk meeting the bridegroom without the expected and welcome light.

On another level, the refusal of the wise virgins makes even more sense. The ten virgins are commonly understood to represent disciples of Jesus the Bridegroom. “These five and five virgins are all Christian souls together”, wrote St. Augustine, who said they are souls who “have the Catholic faith and seem to have good works in the church of God.” The oil signifies good works, an interpretation drawn from the connection made by Jesus between the lamp that shines before men and good works (Matt 5:15-16). Augustine, referring to St. Paul’s great reflection on love in 1 Corinthians 13, said the oil signifies charity, “the gift of God”. There is no contradiction between the two, because our good works are nothing without love (cf., 1 Cor 13:1-3). The wise virgins couldn’t give their oil to the foolish virgins because no one can borrow the good works of others to make up for the good works they’ve failed to do. Each person must, Paul wrote, “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12).

Augustine further identified the drowsiness and sleep of the virgins with death. This makes sense because chapters 24 and 25 of Matthew’s Gospel are focused on the last things, including final judgment (see Matt 24:3, 13; 25:31ff). In fact, the moment of death is the moment of judgment. “Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ…”

Further, in the words of St. John of the Cross: “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love” (par 1022).

Because the five wise virgins were perfected in good works and charity, they “were ready” and so “went into the wedding feast with him.” And then the door was locked. The cry of the foolish virgins—“Lord, Lord…!”—brings further into focus the meaning of true discipleship, for it echoes Jesus’ earlier statement from the Sermon on the Mount: “Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:21).

In light of this, Jesus said, we must stay awake—that is, be spiritually vigilant and mindful the Bridegroom will indeed come. For now, we live in a “time of waiting and watching” (CCC, 672).

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the November 6, 2011 edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.


  1. I did use some insights info from this weekly article series as usual. Didn’t know of Augustine’s interpretation of the sleepy Virgins as death. I guessed that the oil in the lamps referenced good works glad to see it confirmed. The readings as we close Ordinary Time focus on the Last Things. Editor Olson’s comments on the Sunday readings encourage all besides clergy to read and meditate on them beforehand. That surpasses the ‘Leader’ announcing before the Mass the theme of the Gospel. These commentaries deserve wider publication for the faithful at large.

    • Thank you, Fr. Morello, for the gracious words. A manuscript of these columns has been compiled and is under consideration by Ignatius Press.

  2. An act of perfect contrition can take place at any time if the heart is moved to do so, no matter what the state of that heart may be before His inviolate Word (Will)

    In the parable of Ten Virgins or in other words the wise and the foolish, it is fair to say that the general consensus on this parable is ‘be prepared stay awake’ but we all slumber because we are all vessels (Lamp holders) made of clay.

    All those who have heard the inviolate Word/Will/Truth of God and acknowledged it within the heart have had the divine spark ignited within them, as the essence of this spark is Truth. When this happens our pure (virgin) journey commences as we now have the light (Lamp) to follow His on-going Light/Way/Path of spiritual transformation, that is a humble heart that eventually mirror’s His compassionate heart.

    As an analogy we could say that the oil is His redeeming grace and the container that holds that grace is a humble heart as only humility can draw upon the oil because only humility can ‘continually’ trim (Reignite) the smouldering wick (Will).

    Midnight relates to that moment in the journey through life when we enter into a new day (reality) via death.
    We all have slumbered (Some more than others), but the prudent in their purity of intent own their negligence (Sin) before Him and continually trim/renew the wick and when death comes, they will always be ready to greet the bridegroom.

    Sadly, the imprudent whose lamps presumably had long smouldered, now at this crucial moment in time realise that their lamps have gone out. They never bought into the on-going reality of the need of creating a contrite heart (Container) of humility, the only vessel that can continually contain His Divine Mercy.

    When we look at the good thief (Who was ‘entangled in a sinful situation’) upon the cross we can see/deduce that he was already aware of the goodness of God “this man has done nothing wrong” the divine spark within him had been ignited at some time before the Crucifixion and held in a heart of humility that is one of self-awareness of his state before God, as he now publicly acknowledges in truth the reality of his own heart (Trims the wick) and embraces before us the ‘Truth’ the essence of Love, as Divine Mercy (Grace) was then given to him unreservedly.

    “Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you; I do not know you.’

    Or put another way ‘I cannot see you’ as the divine spark (Truth/Light) within the heart had been extinguished.

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. I need to put on stronger glasses or get a PhD in theology.

    Although my weakness of scripture is evident, I may gather more from this difficult to understand article as to what conclusion was reached. I assume that the wise virgins were good and the foolish virgins are bad. Much of the article seems to deal with a mixture of mythology and dogma. As a single voice crying in the wilderness I could use some encouragement.

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