A woman across the aisle caught my eye during Mass this past Sunday. She was sitting in the center section of the church, only about four pews back from the altar, and the priest was preparing the gifts for Offeratory. She was sideways in her seat and talking away on a cell phone. She paused in her conversation and consulted the man behind her, who was leaning over the seat. Apparently, he was part of the chatter, too.
I became irritated.
How very rude!, I thought.
Then I noticed that the man leaning over the pew had his hands on the shoulders of the elderly man in front of him. He was holding the man, keeping him positioned against the pew back. My irritation melted into concern. Clearly, something serious was happening. The woman wasn’t chatting; she calling for help for the man next to her who seemed to be in some kind of trouble.
Before long, ushers and members of the congregation gathered around them. They tried to get the man out of the pew and into a wheelchair, but instead ended up laying him on the floor in the aisle. After a number of minutes more, they finally succeeded in getting into the wheelchair and wheeled him back to the vestibule. One of the associate priests scurried from the sacristy toward the back of the church, holding something tightly in his hand, which I assumed was oil of anointing. Shortly thereafter, I heard a siren and said a prayer for the man and his family.
How sad, I thought as I tried to re-focus on the Mass.
Later, as I was stepping into the Communion line, I thought differently.
Wow. If you’re gonna go, that’s the place and time to do it.
Perhaps that seems morbid to you, but I don’t see it that way at all. Death is an inescapable reality. Someday, I will die. Someday you will die. Someday, we all will die.
But, as Christians, we know that’s not the end of the story. No, my friends, it’s actually the beginning of the story in the sense that we have the incredible possibility of spending Eternity with God after we leave this earth.
And God is giving us the magnificent, blessed opportunity to repent and turn to him, right here, right now, while we are yet alive. That’s a gift, I think, that many of us take for granted. Consider the parable of the virgins and our Lord’s words of caution at its end:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones, when taking their lamps, brought no oil with them, but the wise brought flasks of oil with their lamps. Since the bridegroom was long delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep. At midnight, there was a cry, “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” Then all those virgins got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise ones replied, “No, for there may not be enough for us and you. Go instead to the merchants and buy some for yourselves.” While they went off to buy it, the bridegroom came and those who were ready went into the wedding feast with him. Then the door was locked. Afterwards the other virgins came and said, “Lord, Lord, open the door for us!” But he said in reply, “Amen, I say to you, I do not know you.” Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Mt 25:1-13)
Stay awake Jesus tells us, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Like the elderly man at our church last Sunday, like the virgins awaiting the groom, we do not know where our lives will be dramatically changed or even ended. No one does.
Many take that as a foreboding, ominous message. I look at it in just the opposite. I see it as a message of great, great joy, in which Jesus is reaching out his hand to me, calling me to him and offering me the astounding chance to ask – and receive – forgiveness for my sins, to fully repent, and to change my ways before it’s too late.
Because of that, I thank God every single day that he’s allowed me to live long enough to turn to him and repent.
How fitting that we’re now into Holy Week. Liturgically speaking, this is a solemn, somber week in which we follow our Lord through his Passion and Crucifixion. Rightfully so. Jesus suffered unspeakable anguish so that the gates of Heaven would be opened to us. During this holy week, we take account of our lives, repent for our sins, meditate on the agony of the Cross, and express our deep, deep sorrow for having been the cause of our Lord’s death on Golgotha.
But over all of that sorrow lays a blanket of profound joy because we are alive and have been given the gift of conversion in Christ and the opportunity to make amends for our sinfulness.
True. We know neither the day nor the hour. Yet we do know that we have this day, this hour, this minute, to fill our lamps and await the Bridegroom.