Thursday, August 27, 2009

Stay Awake! You Don't Know The Day Or The Hour When He Will Come.

As I was reading the Scriptures of the day, I was reminded of two friends, both priests of this diocese, Father Donald, who was ordained in 1971, the same year as I was, and Father Ralph, who was ordained two years later. The three of us grew up in parishes where both English and French were taught in the parochial school, and spoke both languages fluently. Ralph also had an interest in canon law, and became a member of the Tribunal staff about three years after me. But there is one significant distinction between Don and Ralph, on the hand, and me, on the other. In the summer of 1991, while on vacation in Maine, Ralph contracted an infection of the brain, and he passed from this life on the 28th of February, 1992. Don had a severe, unexpected, and fatal heart attack on February 25, 1998. May their souls, and the souls of all the faithful departed, rest in peace. Amen.

In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds his disciples of a truth that will touch each and every one of us, and which prompted my thoughts about Ralph and Don: You don’t know what day the Lord will come for you. So, be prepared!

Jesus illustrates this truth with a parable, but unlike Aesop and Lafontaine, he gives the moral of the story first: If the owner of the house had known what time of night the burglar would try to break in, he would have kept watch. So you had better be ready, since the Son of Man will come at a time you least expect him.

"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household to give them their food at the proper time? It will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so when he returns. I tell you the truth; he will put him in charge of all his possessions. But suppose that servant is wicked and says to himself: 'My master is staying away a long time,' and he then begins to beat his fellow servants and to eat and drink with drunkards. The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he is not aware of. He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

The thought sometimes crosses my mind that now, about fifteen years older than Don and Ralph reached, it should be easier for me to put myself in their shoes, but it really isn’t. What does Jesus mean about staying awake? Surely, he doesn’t mean to lose sleep worrying about whether today is the day? (I know, Ralph, “Don’t call me Shirley!”) Still, I ask myself: If my hour comes today or tomorrow, will I be ready?

There is an answer to these questions. It’s not one that will make all concern fade away, because if we are not concerned, we won’t remain alert and watchful. The answer is found in today’s First Reading, from Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians (3:7-13). Take a moment to place yourself in the presence of God, and consider that the Apostle to the Gentiles is speaking directly to you:

Brothers and sisters, in all our distress and persecution we were encouraged about you because of your faith. For now we really live, since you are standing firm in the Lord.

How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you again and supply what is lacking in your faith.

Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus clear the way for us to come to you. May the Lord make your love increase and overflow for each other and for everyone else, just as ours does for you. May he strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all his holy ones.

And there is a second witness who provides a different perspective on the answer to this question:

Saint Monica, whose Memorial is celebrated today, lived the sort of life that doesn’t necessarily help someone to become a saint.

She was born to Christian parents in AD 331 at Tagaste on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa. While still quite young, she was married to Patricius, a pagan official, who was much older than she. His mother also lived with them, which made life even more difficult.

Monica had three children who survived infancy. The eldest, Augustine, is the most well-known. At his father’s death, Augustine was 17 years of age, and was studying rhetoric in Carthage. Monica was distressed to learn that her son was living an immoral life. For some time, she refused to have him share a meal or spend the night in her home. One night, she received a vision that assured her that Augustine would return to the faith. From then on, she remained close to her son, praying and fasting for him. Augustine later wrote that she stayed much closer than he wanted.

At the age of 29, Augustine went to Rome to teach rhetoric. Monica was determined to accompany him. One night, he told his mother that he was going to the docks to bid farewell to a friend, but instead, he boarded a ship and set sail for Rome. Monica was heartbroken when she learned of Augustine’s deception, but she soon followed him to Rome, where she learned that he had gone north, so she pursued him to Milan.

There, Augustine came under the influence of the bishop, Saint Ambrose, who also became Monica’s spiritual director. She sought his advice in everything, and humbly gave up some practices which had become second nature to her (see the quote below). She became a leader of the devout Christian women in Milan, just as she had been in Tagaste.

Monica continued her prayers for her son during his years of instruction. At Easter 287, Ambrose baptized Augustine and several of his friends. Although no one else knew, Monica was aware that her life was coming to an end. She told Augustine, “So, nothing in this world now offers me delight. I do not know what is left for me to do, or why I am still here; all my hopes in this world have been fulfilled.” Not long after, she became seriously ill, and suffered severely for nine days before her death.

One final note: Tomorrow we celebrate the Memorial of Saint Augustine, son of Saint Monica. Which goes to show that mothers’ prayers are not in vain: Not Augustine’s, nor Donald’s, nor Ralph’s nor mine. Mothers, pray for your children. It might be your prayers that will get them to heaven.

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