Sunday, November 9, 2014
How's Your Befindlichkeit?
An anonymous writer on a website which I ran across the other day, raises some interesting questions about today’s Epistle (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18) and Gospel (Matthew 25:1-13): “How does one prepare for the unexpected? Just exactly how are we to live without some final answers?” The writer suggests that the readings, particularly Matthew’s Gospel passage, “are about what to do when we do not have all the answers we want. They are about the mood, tactics, stance and attitude we ought to maintain until we do have more answers than we have now. They are about what to do in this meantime; between this day and the day of God’s fulfillment, which no one has even the slightest clue when it might arrive -- and might not look like anything we were expecting anyway.”
In reflecting on that, the writer alludes to the work of Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), a noted German Catholic philosopher in the field of existential phenomenology. In his book Being and Time, written in 1927, Heidegger coined a German term: Befindlichkeit, generally translated to mean state of mind, but in more recent times also as being in a mood, feeling, attitude, predisposition. In German, if someone asks “How are you?” or “How do you feel?” or says “I find myself in happy or sad circumstances”, the word befinden is used. The phrase Sich befinden can mean finding oneself; how I feel; how things are going for me; what sort of situation I find myself in. “To answer the question [How are you?]” writes Dr. Eugene Gendlin, “you must find yourself, find how you already are. And when you do, you find yourself amidst the circumstances of your living.”
At the end of the first century, many Christians believed that Jesus’ second coming was just around the corner. They felt the need for a spiritual, hardworking and active watchfulness, because Jesus expected his own to be filled with a desire to meet him and be with him forever. Preparation for the coming of Jesus could have consequences for eternity. What was true for them is still true for us. Jesus will come to us one day, as really as he did two thousand years ago. Of course, Jesus can come at any time. For many years, some preachers have periodically forecast the end of the world and the impending arrival of Jesus. Those who are mature and grounded in their spiritual life know that, for most of us, our final encounter with Jesus will take place on the day of our death, but each day, today, brings us ever closer. As St. Paul reminds the Thessalonian community and us in the Epistle: “...since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
Every Christian, from the day of his or her baptism, is reminded of our final encounter with Jesus. In the rite of baptism the candidate is given a candle, symbol of our faith in Christ. It’s a sort of allusion to the forsightful virgin maidens of the Gospel, who provided oil for their lamps while awaiting the arrival of the bridegroom. The Saints remind us that the light-providing oil which prepares us for Jesus’ coming are our works of love, especially for the disadvantaged and those in need.
The invitation to be alert and watchful in order to prepare for the coming of Christ is good for all time. We’re to continually live with our eyes wide open. In our world there are persons and things who would distract and discourage us from faith in Jesus which we hold as members of the Body of Christ. We’re all familiar with the many charlatans and peddlers of new and false teachings and theories. The universal catholic faith has been handed down to us by our faithful teachers and mentors through the centuries since the Apostles. We who are the Church witness to the coming of Jesus every time that we celebrate the Eucharist together, as Jesus comes to us, here and now in his Body and Blood, making us ready to share one day in the Lord's Supper in his risen presence.
The vigilance and alertness for the future which we all need to cultivate isn’t out of fear of God or because of the shame of our sins, but because of our confidence and hope in God’s mercy and love. With effort, anchored in God's gracious promises, we, too, will share with him in glory.
What Matthew depicts Jesus discussing in both Chapters 24 and 25, parables of the reign of God which are in the Gospel today and in that of the next two Sundays, is motivated by a question raised earlier by the Apostles and Jesus’ answer to it: “Tell us when all this will happen and what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age.” “‘Watch,’ replied Jesus, ‘and see that no one deceives you...the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.’” The word “Then...” is repeated no less than 10 times throughout Chapters 24 and 25, just as in today’s parable: “Then the kingdom of heaven may be compared with ten maidens, who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom [and the bride, acc. to other ancient manuscripts].” This time-reference (along with others) isn’t linear time, but a reference to help us understand our own present, our own condition, our state of mind and being, our Befindlichkeit, to borrow Heidegger’s term, in relation to God’s coming. “Enduring, keeping awake, is trusting that the Savior will come after the suffering, trusting that there will be something better, trusting that that One is truly Lord and not a false prophet. Then God alone, who is more powerful than all horrors, will be king.” (Shauna K. Hannan)
The main problem of the virgins in this Gospel is not that they fell asleep, since all alike slept, but rather that though a few prepared themselves for their task, for any eventuality that might happen, the others hadn’t taken into account that the bridegroom might be delayed. This parable, although it generally reflects the Jewish wedding customs of that time, contains some impossible details: For one, why is no bride mentioned? Probably the original text included her because marriage attendants, assisting the bride, not the bridegroom, belong to very ancient Near Eastern custom. Their function was to assist and act as custodians of the bride until the arrival of the bridegroom, in order that he could then take the bride to his home. So, in Matthew’s context, the virgin maidens’ task is to keep watch against the time of God’s visitation, when God comes to claim his bride. Some will unfortunately fail to keep trust; others will remain on guard and maintain vigilance. Jesus’ parable is both an exhortation and warning to all of us as custodians of the Church to “keep awake”.
There’s another seemingly impossible detail: Isn’t it a bit odd that all the maidens who were savvy about bringing enough oil would deliberately refuse to help their companions who were probably close friends and family, thus excluding them from the celebration? How would it have been possible to go shopping at midnight when no stores were open? Besides, who could deny that, at least according Matthew, the unprepared maidens were somehow scrappy and resourceful enough to find some oil, even though, eventually, they were shut out from the feast? Well, there are obviously a lot of unresolved questions about the parable and a number of ways in which you and I might come at the story. Nevertheless, the point of the Gospel passage seems to clearly underline the fact that watchfulness and preparedness for our ultimate meeting with Christ is a quite personal and necessary responsibility for each of us.
The Lord continues coming in the middle of the night to call his own, through the normal process of human death, but even through extraordinary occurrences such as incurable diseases, accidents, and sudden passings. We can’t afford to waste time, however, in useless conjectures about the time of the final coming of Jesus for each of us. We’re to be a watchful, faithful, listening community, vitally tuned into the signs of our time. As we, in our uniquely personal situations, experience the birth pangs of the coming reign of God, we need to constantly measure our present situation with that reign. In continual prayer we ask that God’s reign may come, that Jesus, Lord of all, may awaken hope in us that all creation will finally be renewed and that God’s righteousness, compassion, and love may prevail. As St. Paul advises us: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
So, Heidegger came up with this clumsy German noun, Befindlichkeit, which is your how-are-you-ness, your self-finding, where you are at a given moment in your living. Applied to what today’s Epistle and Gospel are trying to convey, our awaiting and meeting Christ when he finally comes “is not a when to be calculated, but a how to be lived; not a matter of reckoning a definite time in the future, but of being ready”, transformed here and now, “and radically open to an indefinite possibility” that is by its nature indefinite.As we approach the end of the liturgical year, the Gospel invites us to “keep awake”. We’ve all had the experience of trying to keep awake without falling asleep. We‘ve fought drowsiness, perhaps by stretching or walking or drinking coffee in order to stay awake. Staying alert without sleep requires effort. In an army, in time of war, a soldier who falls asleep during his watch risks his own life and the lives of his buddies. This being true on a human level, how much more on a spiritual level.