Have you ever had the experience in which you repeatedly encounter the same idea or theme over and over again? I did last week. It started with my reading a book titled “Heaven is for Real” written by Todd Burpo. In the book the author describes the experience his son, Colton, had when he was just a few months short of being four years old. Colton became seriously ill. He was hospitalized but his condition steadily deteriorated. It was several days before the medical team was able to diagnose the problem as a ruptured appendix. Consequently Colton had an emergency appendectomy but, since it had been several days since the appendix had ruptured, the medical team did not expect Colton to survive. Colton did survive but afterward, over a period of several months, Colton revealed information to his parents making it clear that he apparently had, what is most commonly referred to as, a near death experience. Colton described, in great detail, his trip to heaven and back. He revealed details and information that a boy of his age could not possibly have known. The only possible explanation is that he must have experienced these things firsthand. I found the story amazing and the book inspiring.
Then I read about a young girl from Illinois by the name of Akiane Kramarik. Apparently she has appeared on many television and radio programs, but I have not heard of her before. She says that she has had visions from God and has received visions of heaven. She said these experiences began for her when she was four years old. She began painting when she was six. She is now sixteen. That picture shown above, titled Prince of Peace, was painted by Akiane when she was eight years old. I was impressed by that painting. I personally have never seen a painting so real and so detailed. It is so lifelike that it looks like a photograph to me. Akiane says that her paintings are inspired by her visions. I wanted to share a picture of that painting with you because I think it is truly amazing, not only in quality but also because it was painted by someone who was only eight years old.
I then had the privilege of speaking with a man who told me that he had died due to complications during surgery. Obviously he survived and is now alive and well. But he described for me what he saw and what it was like during his near death experience. Again, an interesting and amazing story!
Then, right after that, I saw a television program in which a commentator was interviewing a man by the name of Mickey Robinson. Again, a name I have not heard before. But to make a long story very short, Mr. Robinson was an avid skydiver till one day he and five other men were involved in a serious airplane crash. Four of the men escaped with minor injuries, Mr. Robinson sustained serious injuries, and sadly the pilot lost his life. Mr. Robinson was hospitalized and during the days and weeks that followed, his condition steadily deteriorated till one day he too had a near death experience. He described his experiences in great detail. His description of that experience was a truly amazing story.
But what fascinated me most about those four stories were the similarities of their experiences. All four spoke of the beauty of heaven. All four spoke of the indescribable love of God and of His desire to have His children love Him in return. And, most notably, all four spoke of the importance of faith and emphasized the importance of our living by faith.
I couldn’t help but think of those four events as I read the Gospel (Mt 25:1-13) for this 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A). The Gospel passage ends with Jesus saying, “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Now I understand that the point that Jesus is emphasizing in this section of Matthew’s Gospel is the importance of our being watchful and ready for His glorious return. But obviously that closing statement that Jesus made can also be applied to our own individual allotted span of life. But whether we are referring to Jesus’ return our own mortality, I ask you to pay particular attention to the content of the story.
The door was locked to five of the virgins. Why? Did they commit some evil act? No! Did they intentionally avoid an opportunity of doing something good? No! The door was locked to them simply because they were not properly prepared. The parable is not about wisdom versus foolishness. It is not about doing good versus evil. It is simply about being ready to receive the Lord whenever and wherever He comes. And that message applies to both our going to Him and His returning to us.
So what does it mean to be prepared and how does that apply to any one of us as an individual. That question can be answered with just one word “faith”. But it is essential that we understand what is meant by the word faith. We must understand that faith is not based on our feelings or on our senses. Nor is faith based on our hopes or our wishful thinking or our desires or our intellectual reasoning. Scripture says that, “Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) That assurance and conviction should fill our hearts with eager anticipation. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth said that, “A Christian who believes in the providence of God will be like a child on Christmas Eve.”
It is essential that we understand the importance of faith because Scripture also tells us that, “Without faith it is impossible to please God. Anyone who comes to God must believe that He exists, and that He rewards those who seek Him.” (Hebrews 11:6)
A beautiful example of this type of conviction and assurance is demonstrated in a story told about an event in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. I will repeat the story as it was recorded by Thomas of Celano in the 13th century. He said, “Father Francis and his companions were making a trip when suddenly Francis spotted a great number of birds of all varieties. There were doves, crows and all sorts of birds. Swept up in the moment, Francis left his friends in the road and ran after the birds. The birds patiently waited for him. He greeted them in his usual way, expecting them to scurry off into the air as he spoke. But they did not move.
Filled with awe, he asked them if they would stay awhile and listen to the Word of God. He said to them: “My brother and sister birds, you should praise your Creator and always love him: He gave you feathers for clothes, wings to fly and all other things that you need. It is God who made you noble among all creatures, making your home in the thin, pure air. Without sowing or reaping, you receive God’s guidance and protection.”
At this the birds began to spread their wings, stretch their necks and gaze at Francis, each of them rejoicing and praising God in a wonderful way according to their nature. Francis then walked right through the middle of them, turned around and came back, touching their heads and bodies with his tunic. Then he gave them his blessing, making the sign of the cross over them. At that they flew off and Francis, rejoicing and giving thanks to God, went on his way. And from that day on, Francis made it his habit to always encourage all birds, all animals and all reptiles to praise and love their Creator.”
That story demonstrates the beauty and the power of an unwavering faith. We all know that faith is having a strong belief in something for which there may be no physical proof. We understand that faith is the opposite of doubt. But to live by that conviction and assurance is not always easy. How many of us, for example, are waiting for the Lord’s return with the same eager anticipation as a child on Christmas Eve? How many of us are so confident in our faith and of our Lord’s returning that we want to share that good news with the birds, the animals and all of God’s creatures?
In this Sunday’s Gospel Jesus said, “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” The experiences and testimony of the four individuals that I mentioned earlier, combined with the message found in today’s Gospel really emphasizes the importance of faith. For with faith and by faith we are not only prepared to meet and greet our Lord, we also anxiously await and anticipate His arrival.