1st Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5; Ps. 121:1-2.4-5 6-9; Rom. 13:11-14; Gospel of Matthew 24:37-44
Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of Good Shepherd, Singapore on 1 December 2019
Today, we begin our liturgical preparation for Christmas by entering into the season of Advent. The Gospel of St Matthew that we just heard proclaimed clearly reminds us to live our faith with greater vigilance. In doing so, the Gospel first highlights how the Israelites during Noah’s day lived their faith in God with much laxity and in a lukewarm manner where the Gospel says they went on “eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark. The Gospel adds that “they suspected nothing until the Great Flood came and swept everyone away.” As such, Jesus cautioned His disciples, “So, stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, this Advent message of our need to live our faith with greater vigilance, clearly not only refers to the time of Noah’s Flood, but also to you and to me in our times, and today. To live our lives with greater vigilance is not so much as to live in the fear of God’s Punishment for our sins, but more importantly, to live our lives with greater gratitude to all the blessings we have and continue to receive from God, and through the people He blesses us with in our lives.
How many of us live in regret of our failure to love our spouse, parents and faithful friends, priests and religious, only after they have died? A good word of praise, a sincere expression of forgiveness, a gesture of appreciation and love for someone who is alive is many times better than an eloquent eulogy at a person’s funeral. The saints of our Church often remind us that even as prayers and Masses offered for people who have died are good, they are even more valuable if they were offered while they were alive on earth.
One of the main reasons why we do not appreciate and show love and gratitude to people who love us, while they are alive is because we so easily take them for granted. More importantly, today’s Gospel is cautioning us not to take God’s Love, Mercy and Goodness for granted. This is because when this happens, our relationship with God and with the people who we are meant to love become weak and superficial.
There is a true story of Chris and Helen (not their real names), who got married in their early 30’s. I have adapted their stories for the purpose of the theme of this homily. Both Chris and Helen were raised in traditional Catholic families. Due to a difficult pregnancy early in their marriage, Helen decided to give up her high salaried job to focus on her family needs. For the next ten years, everything went so well; they had two lovely children who kept Helen busy; while Chris focused on his rising career.
As a housewife, Helen spent most of her time with her kids, and often volunteered at their school programmes. In the meantime, Chris became very successful in his career; with many promotions. He had to travel extensively for work; sometimes even 3-4 weeks a month. This went on for several years.
One day, over their regular quiet Friday night out, Chris told Helen that he no longer loved her. Helen was shocked and asked Chris what had happened? However, Chris remained silent and refused to explain much. Helen begged Chris for some time to talk it over; to seek help and try to work things out between them. But Chris insisted that he had already made up his mind and that it was too late to do anything about their marriage.
Upon one of Chris’ return from his business trips, he gathered the children and explained that he had to leave them, even though he loves them. The children cried and asked their daddy not to leave them, but Chris was firm and was determined to leave. Chris packed and left home that night, leaving Helen and the children confused and deeply shocked and wounded.
After some months, Helen found out that Chris has been living a double life for some years with another woman. Helen felt betrayed and angry with Chris and with what her life has now turned out to be. During the nights, Helen would cry and beg God, “Lord, what does all these mean? How can this happen? What have I missed?” After the children had gone to school, Helen would spend many mornings in silence, in prayer, straining to hear God’s voice.
As she tried to piece her life together, God led different people to her at different times; some giving her strength by praying and crying with her, some being her faithful friend accompanied her throughout her traumatic and turbulent times.
As time progressed, Helen felt a strange, supernatural peace and calm enfolding her. It gave her courage and clarity which can only come from God. So, her love for God grew stronger and deeper as she learned to surrender each day to Him. At each downturn, she would continue to turn to God and seek Him more ardently and at joyful moments, she could feel Him lifting her.
Strengthened and sustained by God’s grace, Helen is now taking steps to begin the process of looking for a job and moving on in her life, with her children. Having been a housewife for close to 20 years and now at 55 years of age, the future may seem uncertain. However, she was consoled by the new peace through her depth of intimacy with Jesus, and this also gave her the needed strength to persevere and to embrace the crosses of her life.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, Helen’s shock of Chris news that he no longer loves her, and had firmly and painfully decided to leave her and their children was not all that sudden. Actually, there were many signs and warnings for Helen that their relationship was drifting apart. Likewise, the Great Flood during Noah’s time did not come all of a sudden. There were many signs and warnings that the Great Flood would happen. While Noah and his family were constructing the ark the onlookers laughed and jeered at them, and continued to choose to ignore God and the signs and warnings that were given to them.
The many years of Chris not being at home for Helen and her children, had unfortunately become an acceptable lifestyle and a norm, and Helen had assumed that her husband still loves her, when in fact their relationship was getting weaker and more superficial . . . Helen had always assumed that as long as she remained strong and took care of her children well, everything would be fine. Unfortunately, much as Helen was a good and very dedicated wife and mother, her husband Chris had needs and challenges in his work and life that he did not share with Helen. And, as such when Helen presumed these needs of Chris did not exist, their relationship began to weaken until it was too late.
In a more serious manner, this pattern was present with the Israelites during Noah’s time. They were taking God’s Love for granted and had ignored God in the way they were living. They were eating and drinking and marrying . . . right up to the day when Noah and his family and the pairs of animals went into the ark. The Gospel tells us, “None of them suspected anything until the Great Flood came and swept them all away.” The Israelites’ individualistic attitude to life, that weakened to the point that God was no longer important in their lives, eventually not only destroyed their families, but everyone, including themselves.
There is a story of a young boy who was trying to lift a heavy stone in the backyard of his garden. As it was very big and heavy, he tried all different ways of moving it, but was unsuccessful. His father then came along and asked him, “Son, are you using all your strength?” “Yes, I am,” responded the son.” “No, you are not,” replied his father calmly. “You have not asked me to help you.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, as in this story, Helen too may have been trying her best to care for her children, but she was not using all her strength because she was doing it without her husband’s help. More importantly, Helen did not seek God’s help in all that she did and lived for.
Fortunately for Helen, all was not lost for her and her saving grace was that she had the humility and wisdom to return to God and begged God of His Light and Strength during her crises. In doing so, God in His Mercy and Compassion sent her help through different people, at different times and in different ways.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves during this Advent season that to live our faith in God with greater vigilance, God does not expect us to be perfect. God knows you and I are each weak, changeable and sinful. And, you and I do make mistakes, some less serious and some more serious in our lives. God sees all of these in you and me.
As such, in the vigilance of our faith, God only expects us to be sincere in the way we live our lives and relate to Him. And so, let us also learn from Helen who when she realised that in spite of her good intentions and deep dedication in her love for her children, but had overlooked the needs of her husband Chris, that led to the divorce, Helen was humble and wise enough to admit her failures and wrongs and beg God for His Forgiveness, and then renewed her commitment to live her life more fully in His Love and Ways.
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let us live in the wisdom of not choosing to be like the people in Noah’s time, where they continued to ignore God and took Him for granted, and not live their faith vigilantly. For if this should be our choice, then we too may be heading for the “Great Flood” and crises in our lives that we may not be able to overcome. So, Jesus urges us to “stay awake” and never take His Love and Mercy and blessings for granted.
Ref: Story adapted from, “More Sower’s Seeds – Second Planting, by Brian Cavanaugh, T.O.R.; Paulist Press, New York, Mawah; 1992: story 33, p. 37.
Msgr Philip Heng, S.J.