19th Sunday 2019
Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
I have always had a liking for the absurd: my humour, such as it is, is rooted in the paradoxes and sheer insanity of the Goons. Hence, it is not surprising that I cherish the memory of a car sticker which I saw years ago, and which read simply “Be alert! Your country needs lerts.”
Daft isn’t it—gloriously so? Yet “be alert” could almost be the summary of today’s Gospel. What is the point of our alertness? It is simply that we shouldn’t be taken by surprise by the coming of the Lord.
What, though do we mean by “the coming of the Lord”? There is the coming of Christ as judge at the end of time, and there is the moment of our death. The latter is something of which previous generations tended to be more aware, because they had a closer acquaintance with death. Not only were there two World Wars, with daily reports of casualties, and, in many parts of the country and the world, the possibility that a bomb would bring a premature end to earthly existence; there were also many diseases which were likely to have fatal consequences. I remember, as a child, three lads in the neighbourhood losing their fathers to sudden deaths within a very short time of each other. These would have been men in their thirties who had, presumably, returned from war service. Devastating though these deaths must have been for their families, they were treated in a matter-of-fact way, as something which simply happened, by the neighbours.
I also recall that, over my parents’ bed, hung a papal scroll, promising the grace of a happy death to my grandfather and his family, provided that, if unable to receive the sacraments, we at least invoked the name of Jesus. My grandfather and father both died suddenly, I suspect without time to utter the Holy Name: perhaps that was in itself a response to their lifelong prayer and state of alertness. My mother was suffering from dementia by the time of her death, but was still able to invoke the name of Mary, perhaps calculating that Our Lady might have more leisure than her Son to respond to prayer.
Incidentally, both my parents died while I was offering Mass for them, which has always struck me as an answer to prayer, though a friend of mine did comment wryly “Well, if I become ill, please don’t offer Mass for me.” Finally, there was the lady, now in her nineties, who told me the story passed on by her mother about the latter’s wedding night. The newly weds knelt down for their night prayers, but when the new wife began a prayer for a happy death, her husband broke in with “Nay, dammit lass, we’ll pray for a happy life.”
Yet our death is not the only occasion when the Lord will come into our lives, and we need to be alert to recognise His presence daily and hourly. He comes to us in our neighbour, both the neighbour whom we encounter in person, and the distant neighbour whom we shall never meet, but who has a right to demand our prayers, and our practical concern for his/her wellbeing.
As the author of the Letter to the Hebrews suggests, the Lord also comes to us, as He came to Abraham, in those situations which call for faith, when we need the courage to step out into the dark, to follow where God is leading us, even though the road may be unfamiliar. He may call us to sacrifice our time, or our cherished projects, trusting that He will see us through, as He led Abraham fruitfully and positively through the ramifications of the call to sacrifice Isaac.
There are the times too when the Lord is calling us to prayer, which itself entails a stepping out in faith, as does the call to join our brothers and sisters in that greatest of all encounters which is our weekly or daily celebration of the Eucharist.
If we are truly alert, we shall realise, gradually or suddenly, that God is, in fact, coming to us in every moment and in every situation; and, if we are wise, we shall learn to respond to Him in love.