Some years ago in Hollywood an actor in his mid-30s suddenly became very ill. He went to his doctor for some tests, and when the results came back, the doctor told him very bluntly, “Your situation is desperate. We’ve got to operate within 36 hours if we’re to have any chance to save you.” As it happened, the operation was successful, and the actor recovered. Later he said, “I learned more about myself in those 36 hours than I had in the previous 36 years of my life. And what I discovered gave me a joy that I’d never experienced before. I discovered that I wasn’t afraid of death. I had made it a habit to pray to Jesus every day of my life. And now, when I was perhaps minutes away from seeing Him, I experienced the fruit of my praying. It was then that I discovered that Jesus and I were not strangers. We were close friends—thanks to those daily conversations” (Link, Illustrated Sunday Homilies, Year C, Cycle I, p. 1).
This story had a happy ending, but not because the actor recovered; even if he had died during the surgery, it would have had a happy ending—for he was ready to meet Jesus. That’s the basis on which our lives will be successful, or unsuccessful; that’s the purpose for which we’ve been placed on earth; that’s the reason why the most important day of our lives will be our final one. We are called to choose whether or not we want to dwell eternally with God in heaven—and if we make the right choice and live it out each day, we have nothing to fear.
We might say that the theme of the readings for the First Sunday of Advent is “A Message of Hope for Unsettled Times,” for we’re told that God always saves and protects those who trust in Him. Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord announced that He would indeed send a Savior, a descendant of King David, as He had promised long ago. Jesus fulfills this promise. He first came to earth that we might saved from our sins, and in the Gospel He describes His future coming as Lord of all creation and as Judge of the living and the dead. There will be terrible and frightening signs leading up to His return; even so, many people will be caught off guard and find themselves unprepared. This sounds like bad news, but in fact today’s Gospel is good news—for it contains a very important message. Jesus says, “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand.” If we live as Christ’s followers, our future will be marked by joy, not fear; what the world finds horrifying we will experience as liberating, for we will encounter Him not as Judge, but as Brother, Friend, and Lord. This is wonderful news—but it’s not something we can take for granted. Jesus warns us against complacency, telling us to be on guard and to pray constantly for strength, so that we may stand secure in His presence. St. Paul echoes this warning, when he begs the Thessalonians to make still greater progress in the ways of holiness and grace. Spiritual growth does not allow us to stand still; if we’re not coming closer to the Lord, we’ll slowly but surely find ourselves moving in the other direction. That’s why it’s essential that we take Christ’s words seriously; only if we place our relationship with Jesus at the center of our lives will we be ready for whatever may come.
A number of years ago some Canadian workers were demolishing an abandoned fort on a former military base in the province of British Columbia; when they came to the base’s brig, or jail, they made a surprising discovery. The old, abandoned building had mighty locks attached to the very solid doors of the prison cells, and the cell windows were covered with steel bars two inches thick; however, the solid-looking walls of the prison were merely wallboard of clay and paper, painted so as to resemble stone. Over the decades the brig had been in use, any prisoner of average strength could have broken through the wall rather easily—but none of the prisoners had ever tried it, because no one had thought it possible (Knight’s Master Book of 4000 Illustrations, p. 217).
Satan and his servants in this world try to imprison us through our fears; they strive to make us afraid of what other people might say or think, so we’ll hesitate to do the morally right thing; they try to make us worry about everything that could possibly go wrong, so we’ll be too distracted to make spiritual progress; they try to make us fearful of what the future might bring, so we’ll forget to praise and thank God here and now. We as Christians are supposed to break through these walls of fear by actively placing our trust in Jesus. We do this by attending Mass and receiving the sacraments regularly; by praying every day; by seeking God’s guidance whenever we have a decision to make; by being willing to change our plans when we have an opportunity to practice Christian charity; by sometimes giving in to others, instead of always insisting on our own way; by offering people a chance to be themselves, rather than immediately withdrawing from them or judging them; and by remembering that God our Father is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and infinitely capable of forgiving us and helping us, no matter what the situation. Jesus came to free us from sin, and so it’s both unnecessary and wasteful for us to allow ourselves to be re-imprisoned by fear.
All of us will die one day, and the world itself will eventually end in a very dramatic fashion. As the Hollywood actor discovered, however, a solid relationship with Jesus can prepare us for whatever may come. Putting Christ at the center of our lives doesn’t necessarily take away our problems, but it does give us the strength and courage to cope with them; following Jesus doesn’t automatically free us from our fears and struggles, but it does allow us to emerge from them victorious. You and I are given the opportunity to choose, serve, and worship Jesus as Lord—and if we do, He will save us, protect us, and one day welcome us into His Kingdom.