PAUL tells the Thessalonians that the dead and the living will “meet the Lord in the air”. This language of meeting (apantesis) was commonly used for a conquering hero returning from war. But, as Beverly Roberts Gaventa explains, “this particular ruler receives tribute, not outside the city gate, but ‘in the air’. . . Unlike the Roman emperor, he is not in charge of particular territories. He is in charge of all territories” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: First and Second Thessalonians).
Paul’s purpose is primarily pastoral. He writes, “we do not want you to be uninformed . . . about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope”. The sovereignty of Christ is the ground of his encouragement of the Thessalonians, in the midst of their mourning.
While the resurrection of Jesus has not extinguished the realities of sin and death from the earth, it has revealed that they will not have the last say. Here, as throughout Paul’s writings, his teaching about Jesus’s rising from the dead is connected with the wider promise of resurrection life which it has won.
Paul’s aim is not to offer a detailed chronology of the events to come. The great sounds from heaven in verse 16 would have indicated to his contemporaries that his genre is apocalyptic (cf. Daniel 10.6, 2 Esdras 6.23, Revelation 1.10).
The hope of eternal life does not diminish the reality of the Thessalonians’ separation from those whom they have loved and see no more. But Paul sets their grief within a framework of hope. There is no need for anxiety about the fate of their brothers and sisters in Christ. While death has taken them from the earth, it cannot take them from the Lord. In him, living and departed remain knit together as members of one Body.
Like our epistle, Jesus’s teaching in this Sunday’s Gospel is addressed to committed disciples. Unlike our previous lections, he is not teaching in the presence of opponents: he is instructing disciples who have come to him “privately” at the Mount of Olives to ask “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
In response, Jesus tells his disciples that “about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son.” He gives the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids to encourage them to live expectantly within the present age.
Augustine explains that the distinction between the wise and foolish bridesmaids is that the foolish have focused on worldly things, and allowed their love to grow cold. In the wise bridesmaids, by contrast, “love preserves its glow even to the very end.”
Both sets of bridesmaids fall asleep. As Hans Urs von Balthasar explains, however, the sleep of the wise is very different from that of the foolish. While they “slumber”, their hearts none the less “keep vigil” — not in anxiety, but in joyful anticipation (cf. Song of Songs 5.2).
In verse 9, the inability of the wise bridesmaids to help the foolish “has nothing to do with the mystery of the communion of saints, in which each is ready to share everything with the other”. In telling us that the wise bridesmaids could not give their oil to the foolish, Jesus is warning that this mutual care does not remove the need for the vigilance of each heart. “Our tepidity and indifference can run up against a genuine ‘too late’” (Light of the Word: Brief reflections on the Sunday readings).
“We can put oil into our lamps,” Augustine writes, “but we did not create the olive. It is the gift of God.” Our vigilance is not a matter of anxious moralism, but of joyful receptivity and expectancy. The wise bridesmaids can rest in sleep — and the Thessalonians can face death without fear — because they are held in a far greater love.
Each night, the prayer of the Church invites us to “depart in peace”, in the assurance of salvation (Luke 2.29-32). In Even-song, George Herbert meditates on the relationship between the “darknesse” with which God “closest wearie eyes”, and the “ebony box” that will “enclose us” at our death:
My God, thou art all love.
Not one poore minute scapes thy breast,
But brings a favour from above;
And in this love, more than in bed, I rest.