Could the message of today’s readings be any simpler or more direct? Jesus sums it up with the very last word of our gospel: “Watch!” In other words, be alert, be ready, be on the lookout. Watch! But is watching really so simple or easy?
Have you ever had to sit through a class that bored you silly? Under such circumstances, watchfulness can be a seemingly impossible challenge. Or have you ever had to keep watch over a toddler who seems to be filled with boundless energy and curiosity? Watchfulness in that case can be absolutely exhausting and nerve-wracking. Even in professions where watchfulness is essential to survival, tedium, routine, exhaustion, distractions all come into play, so that it’s not unheard of for soldiers on guard duty in war zones to doze off or, at least, to have lapses of attention.
Have you ever missed your exit on the parkway or suddenly realized that you have no recollection of the last ten minutes of driving? Maybe it dawns on you that you’re not sure what road you’re on or, worse, where you’re going. When Jesus says, “Watch!” it’s not as trivial a command as it may seem. He knows he’s asking something difficult. How much of life passes us by because we’re not paying attention? How many of God’s blessings do we miss because we’re distracted or preoccupied? It’s no accident that spiritual guides in all the world’s great religions counsel what’s often called “mindfulness.
If you’ve ever taken part in or witnessed a Japanese Tea Ceremony, you know that the whole point is to perform each element of the ritual with focus, attention, deliberation—we might almost say, with reverence—as opposed to hurriedly and distractedly. At the end of the ceremony, all you’ve got is a cup of tea, but it means something different because of what’s gone into making it. We all drink and eat, probably more than usual this past Thanksgiving, but how much do we really savor and appreciate what we eat and drink and all that went into its being available to us? The habit of watchfulness can change the way we live and see the world.
But what is that Jesus wants us to be on the watch for? Well, mostly himself so that we’re ready for him at his Second Coming, or when he calls us home to heaven, or when he whispers little inspirations to us in the circumstances of our daily lives or through the people we meet, including the ones we find most irritating. He doesn’t want us to miss these encounters or be unprepared for them.
Isn’t it remarkable that we can go for hours, days, maybe more, with God out of sight out of mind? Would that be the case if we heeded Jesus’ admonition to watch? “What I say to you,” he says “I say to all: Watch!” It may be the hardest thing he ever asks of us. We can often muster the courage and stamina to bear some heavy cross, but simply to watch, to be alert, to pay attention--how hard it is to maintain vigilance over the long haul. But that’s what Jesus asks, and he knows what he’s asking and why. “Watch,” he says. “Watch.”
I’d like to address the subject of thanksgiving from a point of view you may find unusual. Really what I want to say is that if we trust God as we should, there’s a lot more to thank God for than we normally find worthy of gratitude. Many of you have heard of C.S. Lewis. Your children may have read his Chronicles of Narnia, and many people I know who’ve read Mere Christianity have told me they considered it, perhaps, the best book they ever read in their lives.
Well here’s something interesting about C.S. Lewis you may not know. Although he wasn’t a Catholic, he carried on a long-running correspondence with an Italian priest. Lewis didn’t speak Italian, and the priest didn’t speak English, so they corresponded in Latin, the one language they shared in common and in which they were both fluent. In the course of their correspondence, Lewis wrote this: “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is good, because it is good, if it is bad, because it works in us patience, humility, and the contempt of the world and the hope of our eternal country.”
The lives of many of the saints illustrate Lewis’ contention. St. Marie-Therese de Soubiran, e.g., who lived in 19th century France, was accused by a jealous nun of grossly mismanaging their religious order. The bishop believed these false charges and removed Mother Marie-Therese from her convent, to which she was never permitted to return. Toward the end of her life, she wrote to a friend: “The great truth that God is all and the rest nothing becomes the life of the soul, and upon it one can lean securely amid the incomprehensible mysteries of this world. . . . Should I have learned this without such cruel anguish? I do not think so.”
In my own life, I can testify personally to a mysterious truth to which many others who have undergone similar trials will bear witness. It’s this: As terrible as war is, as unspeakable as its conditions are and the things one sees and endures and is made to do in it, as much as all sane people pray for peace and an end to all war, having lived through one as a soldier, with other soldiers, I wouldn’t give up the experience for anything in the world. I wouldn’t recommend it or wish it on anybody, but I thank God not just for getting me through it but for entrusting the experience to me. I can say the same thing for just about every painful experience I’ve ever had. I wouldn’t be who I am without the scars. I make a poor enough show of it as it is, but I’d be even worse were it not for the many things I’ve been through and because of what I took to be unanswered prayers.
So thanks be to God this day, not just for sunshine but for rain, for good fortune and for bad, for health and for sickness, for success and failure, for plenty and want, for love and bereavement, healing and scars. Thanks for the gift of life with all its light and shadow. With the eyes of faith, we can see that it’s given to take the clay of which we’re made and mold us into something that sunshine and smooth sailing alone could never produce. Scripture tells us that our Lord learned obedience through what he suffered. If Christ, the only begotten Son of God, in his human nature, could learn depths of obedience from suffering, what might we, poor banished children of Eve, not learn by bearing our crosses?
C.S. Lewis was right: We ought to give thanks for all fortune, good and bad, because it’s all part of the path that leads to eternal life. If we get as good at giving thanks as we should, maybe someday we’ll be able to say with St. Catherine of Siena, who lived in the plague-ridden 14th century, “All the way to heaven is heaven.” Thanks be to God for heaven, and all that gets us there. Thanks for all fortune, good and bad. Thanks be to God, who knows what he permits and why her permits it. Amen.
John Paul II once said that Mother Teresa’s should be the face the Church presents to the world. She built her life around the Gospel, two passages in particular: (1) Jesus’ words from the Cross, “I Thirst.” She interpreted this as meaning not that Jesus thirsted for water but for us and our love, and she determined to live her life in such a way that Jesus’ thirst would be quenched. (2) Today’s gospel, Jesus’ dramatic portrait of the Last Judgment, the sheep on one side, the goats on the other, the former destined for heaven, the latter for hell, all based on how they treated others, which, Jesus said, amounts to how they treated him. Mother Teresa liked to say that when we stand before the Just Judge, he will take us by the hand and count out on our five fingers, “You—Did—It—To--Me.”
That’s quite a challenge, but it should also be an inspiration, and, let’s face it, we need all the inspiration we can get in this crazy world. We’d like to think that kindness, charity, and self-sacrifice come naturally to everyone, but by so thinking, we ignore innate human selfishness and ego-centricity. We ignore, too, that we’re heirs to two thousand years of Christian teaching and the Christian example of the saints, imagining that these are superfluous, that we’re all born naturally inclined to be the sheep in Jesus’ parable. It’s so naïve. It’s so dangerous. Ultimately it’s the death of faith, hope, and love.
The great American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, got it just right when he said that “We’re born broken; we live by mending; the grace of God is the glue.” Or to put it otherwise, we’re born tribal; we’re born selfish; we’re born acting as though we were the center of the universe, as though we were king or queen of all. And it’s a life’s work to put Christ in the center and get ourselves out, and we need all the help, reminders, and inspiration we can get to pull it off. That’s what the Church is for. That’s why Christ founded it. That’s why He preserves it in spite of all its flaws.
The Church is here to proclaim Christ King, to remind us, inspire us, help us to keep Him King, not ourselves. Only in Him do we really know who God is and what He’s like. Only in Him do we really understand who we are and what we’re called to be. Only in Him do we rightly grasp the true nature of love. We’re not born with the knowledge of these things. That knowledge is not out there like the air we breathe. We get it from Jesus and His Church. If we abandon them, if we take them lightly, treating them nonchalantly, if we fail to take seriously their reminders, their inspirations, their help, our default position is not Christ-like purity, kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice.
It may seem as if it is for a while, just as cut flowers can continue to look beautiful for a while, but cut off from their roots and nourishment, they’re doomed, and cut off from Christ and His Church, either through outright rejection or casual neglect, our faith, hope, and love will eventually fade and fail.
Today’s Feast reminds us of who the center of the universe is, who ought to be the center of our lives, and of how we’ll be judged by Christ the King. You Did It To Me. I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.