Reference: Luke 21:25-36
Ivar Haugen was a North Dakota farmer, whose story long-time readers of this blog may remember. He calculated the date of the end of the world, and on that day stood on top of his barn, suitcase packed, waiting to be raptured away. It didn’t happen, as we know.
There is another story, this one about St. Francis. One day, as he was planting his garden in the spring, someone asked him what he would do if he knew he would die that night. St. Francis replied that he would finish planting the garden.
These are two responses to living the Christian life. Jesus is asked about “the end times” frequently, and his replies are strongly on the side of St. Francis rather than Ivar Haugen. The question is not what you will do at the end, but what you will do now. In the unfolding of the Christian life ethic, the last day will be the same as any other. Having received the gift of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist to carry with you, your last day will be spent in response, offering your liturgy, the work of your daily life, to your Lord. At least, that is how it happens for those who, like St. Francis, have figured out what it is all about. The drama of Ivar Haugen standing on top of his barn makes the more exciting story, of course. And, while not everyone calculates the last day and acts upon the conclusion, Ivar Haugen’s preoccupation with end times seems the more common theme among us than St. Francis’ orderly and matter of fact approach.
It is strange when you look around at where people are at regarding this. We will all die. Surely that does not require proof beyond the obvious fact that all the people from much more than a century ago are no longer among us. So if a sudden global end comes prior to the conclusion of your normal lifespan, it doesn’t change anything except the timing. The message of Jesus that you shouldn’t worry about the end of the world, but rather about your life right now, is overlooked in the drama of discussing when and how the world will end.
Perhaps it is to be expected in a culture which is prone to denying the obvious universality of death. Over and over again, I have seen people stunned by a medical diagnosis of death in the fairly near future. It is understandable that people are saddened by an impending separation from those whom they love, or are worried about a painful process or are perhaps upset by having to leave before the garden is completely planted. But the diagnosis of mortality? What were you expecting?
Therefore, the message of the whole New Testament, not just the words of Jesus, is very clear. Many of the early believers anticipated an end to the world sooner rather than later. But that date is really irrelevant, as well as unknowable. The important question is that of your own life’s actions. Jesus returns the focus in several parables and statements. The servants of the master who is away are strongly advised to stay on the job just as if the master were present. And although the foolish virgins created more drama, as they rushed in panic to try to find oil for their lamps in vain, it is the wise virgins who maintained their lamps all along who are commended.
There is an aspect of the story of St. Francis in the garden which is often missed. If he is to die that night, it is of absolutely no value to him personally to plant the garden. He would be gone long before even the first shoots appear. But he is as motivated to plant the garden for others as he is for himself. Jesus makes the same point essentially in Matthew 25. It is in caring for others that we fulfill our own vocation. Nor is there such a thing as an individual Christian. Jesus is where two or three are gathered in his name. Anyone coming to Christ alone will be promptly advised to seek the fellowship of his or her brothers and sisters. The famous Protestant principle of the “priesthood of all believers,” as established by St. Peter (1 Peter 2:9), doesn’t make us all individual priests doing our own thing, but it brings us together in the universal priesthood of the baptized, to make our offering in common. Francis is planting “on behalf of all and for all.”
The season of Advent, which we are now beginning, provides us the opportunity to follow the example of St. Francis in getting our act together, with some basic questions to be reviewed:
a. What are the purposes in life for which I was created?
b. Are my goals for my life today correlated to Jesus’ teachings, the Beatitudes, Matthew 25, and the Two Great Commandments of love, or is my life off in some mission drift which needs a course correction?
c.Where is my spot in the Body of Christ? Am I living for myself only or am I oriented to the community of Christians around me?
d. In Matthew 25, every face in need is the face of Jesus. How am I responding to those faces?
The end of life is a poor time to start reflecting on this. Now is an excellent time.
Advent is, by definition, a time of arriving. In Advent at one level, we prepare for the arrival of Christ on earth, Incarnation. But we also know that the event is already accomplished, long ago. He has arrived, and in the process of our Eucharistic celebration, we celebrate that arrival of the Lord among us, under the humble yet sacred forms of bread and wine, an arrival new every week. These incarnations among us are not separate concepts, but merge into one continuously renewing arrival, in our face. There is no need for panic or drama. Just continue with your life, like St. Francis, with your act together. If your life isn’t together, refer back to the beginning until it is. If it is together in the presence of the Lord who arrives among us, your eucharistic joy is full, today and as many days as lie ahead. “My God, thou art true, my soul, thou art happy,” as Richard Hooker put it.