From the moment she knew she was pregnant, my daughter stopped drinking wine. She was extra careful about avoiding Covid. In the time leading up to her delivery, she and my son-in-law attended pre-natal classes, cleaned the house with disinfectant from top to bottom, and stopped flying. Pregnancy brought joyful expectation but it involved discipline to set aside other pleasures, reallocate resources and avoid infection in order to be ready. Fear of harming the baby determined much of what she and her husband chose to do but it was mixed with happiness.
My granddaughter, Neave, was born about a year ago and is a healthy charming baby.
I saw the preparations for Neave’s birth as an analogue for this morning’s gospel (Matt 24:36-44), involving both threats and joys and the call to prepare, except that our preparations are for the savior to be born in us.
But I’m getting ahead of the gospel itself.
Growing up in the 1950s the text of this morning’s apocalyptic gospel (Matthew 24:36-44) resonated with me, not because I was a particularly spiritual child, but because I had seen that it was TRUE.
The gospel begins, ‘But about that day and hour (referring to the END) no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son (some ancient manuscripts do not include nor the son), but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
When I was in grade 3, one of my classmates, her mother and brother died during Hurricane Hazel when their house on the Humber River Flats was swept away and they drowned. It felt like the fulfillment of Jesus’ comment that the flood came. I don’t recall anyone ever telling me, “Let this be a lesson that you could die at any time”, but that thought stayed with me.
The gospel continues, Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
My ‘lesson’ deepened four years after Hurricane Hazel, when Marty Conway, with whom I played street hockey, football and baseball virtually every day, got a fever on a Friday. It worsened the next day, so his parents took him to the hospital late Saturday. He collapsed while walking into the hospital and died a few hours later. The diagnosis was meningitis. It seemed so arbitrary that he was taken and I was left.
My morality was based on fear and was “death-oriented”. I was afraid of going to hell if I died in a state of sin. The fear of sudden death kept me, mostly, on the straight and narrow path, but my moral sense was “immature”.
When I re-read the gospel last week I was struck by the instructions to keep awake and be ready. (Some other translations use stay alert or watch and be prepared.) Jesus repeats keep awake in the next chapter in the parable about the ten maids waiting for the master to return (Matt 24:42-44).
A more positive sense of being ready includes making sure one is prepared to go into action if and when needed. Athletes stretch before beginning a competition and repeat the kinds of motions they will use during the event. Often they will visualize different situations and how they will master them. They repeat difficult moves in controlled conditions. Musicians warm up their fingers and voices, frequently replaying difficult parts to ensure that they can perform the parts flawlessly during the actual performance. Pregnant women go to extra efforts to ensure that the baby growing within them is healthy.
Jesus appears to be telling his followers to anticipate daily challenges, to understand what threatens their spiritual lives and to master the situations in which they occur. He seems to tell them “Look at your lives and the things that tempt you… and address them.” Do you have a temper; do you realize that you sometimes drink too much wine; are you lazy; do you want material things so much that you sometimes steal; do you judge others harshly; do you look at another person lustfully? He wanted his followers to ‘vaccinate’ ourselves against these interior threats to eternal life by examining our vulnerabilities and either avoid the occasions where they occur or work out a way of confronting them successfully.
Pregnant women who forgo wine, flying and who take extra care to avoid getting Covid practice this kind of alertness in the way they protect the life that is growing within them. It takes discipline but the benefit far outweighs the costs.
The concluding phrase hints at a brighter picture, be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. That the Son of Man is coming is what Jesus wanted us to hear. The hope of his coming supports joyful expectation for those who are ready. His arrival should delight those who await him, as any birth kindles hope for a parent, mixed with the question of “what world have we brought this child into”.
As we begin to look forward to celebrating Christmas, the anniversary of the Son of Man’s arrival, the gospel introduces a theme of anticipation and preparation for that event. It invites us to ‘clean house’ to be ready for the arrival of our guest.
The ominous tone of the apocalyptic vision cannot be ignored. (It is part of a longer section about the coming of the Son of Man.) It speaks to a world where there are many temptations and threats …. and we are sometimes weak. Nevertheless it invites us to discipline ourselves and to look forward to his coming with joy.