There is a classic short story by the great Russian author Leo Tolstoy called “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” In that story the main character suddenly discovers that he is dying, and the whole tale focuses on his struggle of coming to grips with that reality. Towards the beginning, Tolstoy describes a medallion that Ivan Ilyich wears, hanging from the chain of his pocket watch, and inscribed on that medallion is the Latin phrase: Respice Finem (regard the end).
It is supposed to be a reminder that just as we cannot stop the hands of time, we will all one day come to the end of life. We must all “regard the end.” But the irony is that all throughout the story, Ivan Ilyich does anything but “regard the end.” He is simply unprepared—even unwilling—to face that reality until the very bitter end.
We have come to that time again in the Church’s liturgy, the end of the liturgical year, when we begin to look at what the Church calls “the last things.” Traditionally the last things are death, judgment, heaven and hell (things we do not usually talk about over our morning cup of coffee).
Yet all of these “last things” are present in some way in our Gospel this morning. Jesus tells the Parable of the Ten Virgins: five of them wise and the other five, foolish. And the only thing He gives us to distinguish between the two is that the wise virgins have oil for their lamps and the foolish ones do not. In the end, that’s what makes all the difference.
The bridegroom is delayed in coming; suddenly he arrives, and Jesus says that “those who were ready [the ones who had the oil] went into the wedding feast with him” (Matthew 25:10). Those who were ready.
What does it mean to be ready? What does it mean to be prepared to meet the bridegroom, who is Christ? It means, essentially, that we “regard the end.” We understand what the end means for us as Christians, what Christ wants us to understand about our life here on this earth, about death, but ultimately about eternal life in the world to come.
One of the challenges we face as Christians in our current culture is what some have called the “suppression of death.” So much of what we see and read and experience everyday sends us the message that “This life is all there is.”
We have thousands of items on the market that help us look younger, hide aging, slow down the dying process, yet all the while the clock is ticking and we are trying with all our might to ignore that medallion swinging from our watch chain, telling us to regard the end. Respice Finem.
You might remember the movie "Meet Joe Black" that came out a number of years ago. A successful businessman suddenly receives a mysterious visit from death. The very first thing he begins to do is bargain with him! “Hey, can we make a deal here.” Death is something to be avoided at all costs.
But death, for us as Christians, is not the end of all things. In fact, our faith teaches us that it is just the beginning. The five wise virgins in the parable come to the end of their journey here, the bridegroom arrives and they go inside with him to the wedding feast. Their joy has only just begun; there is a whole wedding feast before them. That’s the kind of attitude towards death that we need to have here in this life.
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, in his book From Death to Life, talks about the Christian meaning of death. He says that we must see it as a transition, not an end in itself. To see it as an end only is to miss the entire point of our life in Christ.
He says that “a living hope in life after death . . . determines a responsibility for [our] life here on earth, ” that we are willing to make sacrifices and renounce our own will to serve others. We are able to see ourselves as pilgrims here on this earth, having our hearts set on the world to come. Heaven is the final destination for the Christian; not this world.
To know and understand our final end radically changes the way that we live in this world. All of life is a workshop in which we prepare for that eternal life with God (Nicolas Cabasilas, 14th century).
God wants to share His very life with us for all eternity, to give us a share in His own divine life. He does this at Baptism, but we need to constantly keep that relationship open and be willing to grow in it here on this earth, so that we will be ready to enjoy it with Him forever in the life to come. We spend our lifetime responding to His invitation, drawing closer to Him and nurturing that friendship with God that He himself has begun in us.
The wise virgins are the ones who have done that. They have begun already the preparation for that eternal wedding feast. That is the significance of the oil. It is the divine life that they have kept burning within them.
The foolish virgins ask them for some oil but they refuse. At first glance, it seems un-Christian of them, doesn’t it? But if we see what Christ means by the oil, we know that they simply cannot share it with another. How can someone give to another their own personal relationship with God? How can you share with someone a lifetime of prayer and growth in virtue, a lifetime of responding to the offer of divine grace?
The life God calls us to in eternity begins here on this earth. It is not something that can be turned on like a light switch at the end of our lives. We begin now to cultivate that real and living relationship with God. That is what it means to be prepared for eternal life. That is what it means to “regard the end.”
It is the foolish virgins who are left outside. They call out to the Lord and say, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!”, but he says to them instead: “I do not know you.” Those are perhaps the saddest words in all of Scripture. He does not know them because they have not let themselves be known.
This morning we need to ask how we can better prepare ourselves for that wedding feast Christ is calling us to. What is God asking us to do in our lives so that we will come to know Him more intimately? How can we live more completely in this life with our hearts set on the life to come?
Come, Lord Jesus, come into our lives and help us to “regard the end”, and to know that our true home, our final end, and our ultimate destination is eternal life in You.