The telephone rang and woke me from a very sound sleep at around 2:00 AM. I had just been ordained a few months and was just getting into the routine of my new life as a priest. Yet, these early morning calls were still taking some time to adjust to. I could hear muffled voices in the background as a rather distraught voice said, “Father, we need you quickly, there’s been a sudden death in the family.” I quickly and carefully wrote down the address, knowing that I do not have an innate sense of direction. Mind you, these were the days before GPS devices in cars! Throwing on my clerics, I made my way to the home. Cars were arriving and distraught family members were being greeted at the doorway. The family saw the collar before they saw my face and were relieved that I had arrived. They quickly ushered me into the bedroom. The father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend to many had been suffering from a minor illness. No one expected this. It was sudden and swift. Shock was registered on all their faces. I gathered those who were there around the bed as we prayed the prayers for the dead and I invited each member to gently trace the cross on their beloved’s forehead. Soon, the mortuary staff would arrive and the ancient and comforting rituals of leave taking of our Church would unfold.
My friends, in the course of my 45 years as a priest, that scene would repeat itself and time again in my life. Yet, thankfully and with God’s grace, never routine but always providing a graced moment of pause and reflection reminding me and all those gathered in shock and sadness that, “we have not here a lasting city.”
As we mark once again as a community of believers a new beginning in this new Liturgical Year on this First Sunday of Advent, God’s word challenges us with its familiar theme of ‘watchfulness’ at the coming of the Lord. St. Mark reminds us that, “you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming….” Indeed, while there are those whose final chapter in life’s journey comes slowly and predictably as a result of some serious and lingering illness, we are reminded of those, like our beloved service men and women, who in these recent years of conflict have been tragically taken from their families suddenly and swiftly.
While these readings might easily conjure up the unsettling feelings of dread and apprehension particularly for us living in a death denying culture, for the faithful Christian, my friends, our focus should be on a beautiful passage in today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “God is faithful…” Indeed, for those whose hearts rest secure in the unfailing mercy of our loving God, each of the chapters of our lives, the inevitable twists and turns, the moments of triumph and failure, the times of indescribable joy and numbing fear, all of them are companioned by the one who has known these feelings and experienced them himself and now Triumphs as victor over sin and death. The Lord of life, Jesus, is indeed Savior – OUR Savior who stands ready to free us from our fears about both the past and the future, fears that that can so often and easily rob us of living the present moment that is before us.
And so, my friends, let us “be watchful!” and “ready,” for the innumerable surprises that the Lord has in store for us in our journey to the fullness of the Kingdom.