Today's Gospel takes us straight back to the ministry of Jesus, right back to what it was like, how it felt, for the very first disciples. The parable of the ten girls at a wedding is a homely tale which climaxes in the crunch line, 'Stay awake because you do not know either the day or the hour'. What day? What hour? Those are our immediate questions but people in Palestine in the time of Jesus didn't need to ask them.
The Jews had become very pessimistic about the value of tinkering about with this world to improve it. Will it really change anything fundamental about human life to add a reform here, an uplifting piece of oratory there? Isn't human nature -- isn't this world -- too much of an inveterate mess to be improved by piecemeal reform? Won't God simply have to intervene and start up his creative work all over again, rooting out what is evil, vindicating what is good?
We in the modern West can understand this attitude. Faced with the debacles of recent history, it seems not unreasonable to be in a permanent state of mild despair about humanity as we know it. The growth of knowledge and technology doesn't, evidently, reduce the malice in humanity. It just gives it more scope.
Accordingly, many Jews, holding to the faithfulness of God to his own goodness, expected a new creation, a new world: the 'turn of the ages', as they called it -- or, again, 'the 'Day of the Lord', or -- yet again, the 'hour of the Son of Man'. This was the moment when God would send a sort of plenipotentiary to sort out supernaturally the mess we've made of the first creation.
So this is what Jesus is talking about, this is 'the day' and 'the hour' that his hearers don't know and so they've got to stay awake.
If this were the end of the story, however, then we today would be in exactly the same position as the Jews then. We'd be 'waiting for Godot', waiting for a glorious solution to our problems that's always coming but never here. A never-never land, in fact. But this is NOT how the New Testament sees it, because the New Testament doesn't end the story with the preaching of Jesus. It goes on to talk about his passion, death and resurrection. It sees in these events the breakthrough, the new world, the divine intervention that Jesus discussed and we need.
St John's Gospel is the clearest witness to that because St John ties Jesus's language about the day and the hour absolutely firmly to the moment of Jesus's death. At Cana, Jesus at first refuses his mother's request for a miracle of some kind by saying, 'My hour has not yet come'.
Later, at the feast of Tabernacles, John explains the puzzle that the Temple guards didn't arrest Jesus as a troublemaker by saying, 'his time had not yet come'. On Palm Sunday, Jesus tells his disciples, 'Now the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you most solemnly, unless a wheat grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain but if it dies it yields a rich harvest'.
And at the Last Supper he prays, 'Father, the hour has come: glorify your Son, so that your Son may glorify you, and through the power over all mankind that you have given him, let him give eternal life to all those you have entrusted to him'. So the death of Jesus is the day, the hour: it was for this they were to stay awake, to be vigilant; this is why the parable of the ten girls at the wedding feast was drummed into their ears.
And did they stake awake? The Gospels describe for us the flight of the disciples, save only John; and with great irony the literally falling asleep of Peter, James and John in the Garden of Gethsamene as Jesus sweats blood before them.
'Could you not have stayed awake with me one hour?' What layers of meaning for our faith that question contains! This is the moment when a new world is to be born; when God made man is to make the ultimate sacrifice of his infinitely precious life; when the endless energy that sacrifice releases is about the pour back into the world as the One we call the Holy Spirit -- the Spirit who makes all things new, the Spirit who renews the face of the earth. This is the hour, the hour of doom and salvation, the crucial hour, the bewitching hour for our everlasting good, after which the world can never be the same again, and 'Could you not have stayed awake with me' in this hour of all hours?
Our faith invites us to see the death and resurrection of Christ as the central events in the history of the world. Through them, God's Spirit is sent abroad to remake humanity in the image of his Son, to gather men and women into that union with him we call his mystical Body. From the life of that Body, St Paul, St Francis of Assisi, Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, were nourished.
And in such we see what human nature can become if only we let grace do its stuff. This is our remedy as Christians for the ills of the world: the new start, the new energy, the new hope for the world of the risen Lord.