Our Gospel passage for today is part of a long conversation that St Matthew records in Chapters 24 and 25. Up until this point in the conversation, Jesus has been explaining what the age of the Church will look like. The age of the Church is the period of history between Our Lord’s resurrection and His second coming.
He has explained to his Apostles that the age of the Church will be marked by both wonderful growth and painful persecution. He has explained that Jerusalem, the epicenter of the Old Covenant, will be destroyed to make way for the New Covenant. He has explained that the world itself will eventually come to an end to make way for the new heavens and the new earth. And then, by referring to the example of Noah, he explains that although these things definitely will happen, the Apostles can’t know when: “you do not know on which day your Lord will come.”
Why is Jesus telling them these things? Why does the Church remind us about them every year as Advent begins? I’m glad you asked.
God wants us to know that our time is limited, that our lives, and history itself, will someday come to an end. He wants us to know this, because he wants us to use our limited time wisely, to live as true Christians. Jesus considers this lesson to be so important that he dedicates four separate parables to it before he finishes the conversation, driving the lesson home. Jesus knows how easily even the most faithful disciple can become distracted by earthly life, forgetting that earthly life is but the path to the goal of eternal life.
Pope Benedict once said this about our future goal of eternal life in Heaven, “Here too we see as a distinguishing mark of Christians the fact that they have a future: it is not that they know the details of what awaits them, but they know in general terms that their life will not end in emptiness. (Spe salvi, #2) Human life is a journey. Pope Benedict then asks two questions, he asks, towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. (Spe salvi, #49) Life on earth is the path, not the goal.
I have a story about a woman who forgot this for a time. St. Mary of Edessa was born in 4th century Syria. Her parents died when she was only 7, but she was adopted by her uncle, St. Abraham Kiduania, and with this new home she began to live a remarkably holy life.
For 20 years, Mary lived as a hermit; following the advice of her hermit-uncle she sought a life of deep prayer and sacrifice. One day a monk caught sight of Mary as he was visiting Fr. Abraham. He was not a good monk. And he made it his goal to steal Mary away from her life of prayer. He spent a year befriending her becoming more and more friendly and familiar with her. Eventually Mary gave in, but afterward she was horrified at what she’d done. She was ashamed and hid from her uncle, the one who loved her, “How can I even try to speak with my holy uncle?” She asked herself. “Seeing that I am already dead and have no hope of gaining salvation. I’d better leave here and go to some foreign land where nobody knows me.” And so she left.
Mary of Edessa is one who should have known better. After falling she should have remembered the infinite mercy of God and plunge herself into it. To be a Christian, is to know that we are deeply loved by a God who sees us in all of our sin, and loves us anyway. After falling Mary had only to turn to the Lord and ask for forgiveness; instead she gave into despair. Her despair convinced her that having fallen once; she could never again be holy. So Mary ran away from her home and took up residence in and began working in a house of ill-repute.
Meanwhile, Fr. Abraham was oblivious to all that had happened. But that night he had a vision of a dragon consuming a dove; two days later, in another vision he saw the same dragon with its belly torn open. He reached in to pull out the dove, miraculously unharmed. When he called out to his niece to tell her about it but received no answer, Abraham realized that she was the subject of the vision. She was the dove, the daughter of his soul was gone and all he could do in her absence was to pray for her.
He prayed for two years before a report reached him that his Mary was living and working in a brothel. Fr. Abraham; like the Good Shepherd, was off without a moment’s hesitation, eager to bring his lost lamb home.
Abraham hadn’t left his hermitage in decades, but he disguised himself as a soldier and began his journey. He made an appointment with Mary, who didn’t recognize him until he began to cry, begging her to come home. Moved by his powerful love, Mary returned to her hermitage and began again a life of prayer. Within three years, God testified to her true conversion by giving her the gift of miracles. Through her prayers to God there were many miracles. More than just being returned to her original state of holiness, Mary was brought through wickedness to greater prayer, greater virtue, and greater power in Christ.
While he spoke to Mary in her brothel, St. Abraham reminded her, “There is nothing new in falling down in the contest; the wicked thing is to keep on lying there.” St. Mary of Edessa is a powerful witness to what God is capable of when we offer him our sin—and what we’re capable of when we don’t.
Life on earth is the path, not the goal. St. Mary of Edessa forgot the goal of Heaven and she forgot the Mercy of our Good God. But her uncle was there to remind her and bring her back to the mercy of our Lord.
As Pope Benedict once said, “Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route. The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. As St. Paul said, “Put on the armor of Light, put on Christ Jesus!” In other words, be a light of hope to those around you.
My prayer for us today is that we may be a light of hope, consuming ourselves, like a candle, giving light and warmth to those around us. Always pointing the way to eternal life.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley