11 August 2013
In this morning’s Gospel lesson, our Lord gives us a basic history lesson. It’s not the sort of a “in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue” (or, less trivially, that in August of 1789 this property was conveyed to the trustees of Charleston’s Roman Catholic Community) sort of lesson. It’s more of a lesson in what we might call “meta-history.” Our Lord is not concerned so much with past events of history, but rather with what history is, where it is going, and how that reality, that understanding of history, ought to re-order the lives of his disciples: Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks… You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
This is a terse reminder – and really a little late-summer foretaste of Advent – that history is not, as the pagan Greeks imagined, an endless cycle of turning and returning – lather, rinse, repeat. Nor is it simply an endless procession of years, centuries, and millenia till the sun burns itself out and eventually the cosmos collapses in upon itself. Nor is history, as the cynic had it, just one damn thing after another. Rather, history is a story, a divine drama, with a beginning, middle, and an end – that end, at an hour we do not expect – when Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.”
History is going somewhere, it will end, and it has an end – a goal: the Son of Man will come. Therefore, Jesus says, You also must be prepared.
The point of this history lesson is that our choices matter. It lends a certain urgency, a meaningfulness, to our days. If history is just an endless repeating cycle, or just an endless procession of years, then who cares? There is nothing to strive for, nothing to fear, nothing at stake – like striking out or hitting a home run in a children’s game where no one is keeping score.i
And the danger here, I think, is not that believing the householder is permanently delayed, we will indulge our worst animal desires and savage appetites as the deadly sins of anger and lust take full sway – though in some ages that was the result. In our own time, though, I think we are much more likely simply to let the days, months, and years slip by in the pursuit of…nothing much. As Vaclev Havel said, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”ii We will stare at screens, idly clicking across the internet ethers. We will obsess over minutiae. Sloth, more than anger or lust, is the deadly sin of the indolent West in our age.
Theologian Rusty Reno imagines the whispering voice of sloth like this:
“All things are sanctified by the Lord, and one could just as well worship on the golf course as in a sanctuary made by human hands.” Or: “God is love, and love affirms; therefore, God accepts me just as I am. I need not exercise myself to change.” In our day, these temptations seem far more dangerous than Emerson’s “trust thyself.” After all, how many people, believers or unbelievers, wish to reign anywhere, in heaven, hell, or even in their own souls? Few, I imagine. Most of us just want to be left alone so that we can get on with our lives. Most of us want to be safe. We want to find a cocoon, a spiritually, psychologically, economically, and physically gated community in which to live without danger and disturbance. The care-free life, a life a-cedia, is our cultural ideal…iii
This is why we need our Lord’s history lesson. If he is coming again and “will judge the living and the dead,” if he should come in the second or the third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants, then this life – this very day and the choices I make in it – mean something, and it is time to rouse ourselves and act.
Blessed are those servants, Jesus says in this morning’s little parable, whom the master finds prepared in this way. That “in this way” is interesting, isn’t it? It reminds us that we are, in fact, always preparing, always becoming. The choices I make today have a lot to do with the sort of person I will be tomorrow, and the sort of choices that person will be apt to make. And if I am not prepared in the way of love, then I will be prepared in the way of something else – something that is not love.
This, of course, is just what we see in Dante – in the Inferno, it’s not so much that the particular punishments of hell fit particular sins, but rather that sinners have become their sins: the miser has become his greed. The murderer is lost inside his violence. It’s not that they are beyond forgiveness, beyond God’s mercy, but they are beyond desiring it.iv
And the same is true of the saints in Heaven, but in reverse. Having given themselves over to the practice of love, they have attained to the true freedom which is actually the incapacity to will anything other than the good of themselves and their neighbors. They have been conformed to love.v
So the question is, what sort of preparation are we making? Who do we want to be, what sort of persons do we want to be, when the master returns? Well, saints, of course. And how does that happen? One choice at a time. In “small deeds,” as St. Therese of Lisieux said, “done with great love.” So that, finally, carried along by God’s grace, we become love – the very image of the One who is Love Himself.
Love Himself – that is the master who is returning, and for whom we prepare. And if we are ready, “loins girded and lamps lit,” and open to him when he knocks – what happens? Love pours himself out for us: Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have the servants recline at table, and proceed to wait on them.
And that is the beginning and the ending of our preparation: the contemplation of him who came “not to be served but to serve,” who gave himself for us. That is the bracing tonic that will shake us out of our slumber, and cure our addiction to comfort and a carefree life, so that we can live a true life, a life of meaning and purpose, even if its stage is only our own home, its characters our own family and neighbors. The contemplation of his character – of his truth, beauty, and goodness – will form our character. And to live a Christian life, to be a vigilant servant, is nothing but our day by day, intentional, existential “Yes” to his love.
In this little parable, our Lord points us to history’s far horizon when, with great glory, the Son of Man will come. But there are also those nearer and anticipatory comings, when, like vigilant servants, we may also rise to answer his knock. He comes – he comes in the everyday encounters with the naked and hungry and sick, whom to clothe and feed and comfort is to clothe and feed and comfort Christ himself.
And of course there is another near horizon of his coming – and of that coming we do know the hour. He will come among us, on this altar, in just a few more minutes. And though he is Master and Lord, he invites us, his servants, to recline at his table – to kneel at this rail – where, in love, on love, he himself will feed us; he will feed us on himself.
So, let us prepare to greet him, ready to open the doors of our hearts when he knocks.
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iRoss Douthat, “The Case for Hell.” The New York Times, 24 August 2011.
iiLetters to Olga
iii“Fighting the Noonday Devil” in First Things, Aug/Sept 2003.
vAnthony Esolen. “The Freedom of Heaven & the Freedom of Hell” in First Things March 2009.