Is There a Purpose to Life?

Is There a Purpose to Life?

Years ago there was a poor family—a husband, wife, and son—who lived in a simple cabin in a rural area. They didn’t have very much in the way of material things, but they had plenty of love; the parents in particular made sure to share their love, faith, and guidance with their boy. Then, one day, tragedy struck: their house caught on fire and burned down. The three of them were all right, but they had lost almost everything. After a few minutes of crying and hugging and praying, they set to work; the husband and son went into town to buy a few meager supplies, while the wife sifted through the ashes of the home to see if there was anything to salvage. When the father and his son came back a while later, they were astounded at what they saw. The mother had sifted through the ashes and found a few books, papers, and dishes, but that wasn’t what amazed them, for she had also found a small can that she filled with wildflowers she picked from the surrounding fields. When the boy and his dad saw that beautiful and glorious arrangement of wildflowers in the midst of destruction and loss, they suddenly knew everything was going to be all right (William J. Bausch, Once Upon A Gospel, p. 29).

We might say this story is a good metaphor, or interpretation, of the Gospel (Mt 11:2-11) for the Third Sunday of Advent. John the Baptist had seemingly lost everything, for after faithfully proclaiming the truth and putting all his hopes in the imminent arrival of the Messiah, he found himself in prison, knowing that almost certainly he would never leave it alive. There may have been a touch of desperation in the question he sent to Jesus: “Are You the One, or should we look for another?” Many people today ask similar questions amid their suffering and shattered dreams: “Is there a purpose to life? Is there any reason to hope? Is what you Christians say about Jesus actually true?” Our living faith and compassionate concern can be like wildflowers in the midst of emotional ashes—and this is what Jesus wants of us. We must place all our hopes in Him, and then freely live and share His Good News with others.

Even though our lives on earth are relatively short, we usually have difficulty looking at them as a unified whole, from birth to death; we normally tend to think or plan on a shorter-term basis, perhaps from day to day, week to week, or at most a few years in advance. That’s why it’s hard for us to be patient, to remain hopeful, and to fight off discouragement—and yet these are precisely the things our readings call us to do. St. James (5:7-10), for instance, tells us to be patient, and he uses the example of a farmer waiting for the planted crop to take root and grow to remind us of how we must have faith. The glorious promise of miracles and rejoicing presented by the prophet Isaiah (35:1-6, 10) will be fulfilled, but only when the time is right. We might say that because of human sinfulness, the Kingdom of God has a long incubation period—but it will arrive at the proper moment. Even someone as great as John the Baptist needed to be reminded of this. He was the transition figure between the Old and New Testaments, and he may have been thinking in worldly terms, similar to the majority of the people who expected that the Messiah would be a great earthly ruler. Jesus, of course, came to liberate people not from the Roman Empire, but from their slavery to sin, and to establish not an earthly realm, but to usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. This may have been a disappointment to John, but Our Lord presented these “wildflowers” to him: the blind were regaining their sight, the lame were walking, lepers were cleansed, the dead were being raised, and the poor were receiving good news—thereby fulfilling the prophecies and vindicating those who placed their trust in God.

Almost 100 years ago the great Catholic author G. K. Chesterton wrote, “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner” (Zuck, The Speaker’s Quote Book, p. 199). We can certainly understand this hope on the Third Sunday of Advent—traditionally called “Gaudete Sunday,” from the Latin word for “rejoice”—for Christmas is just around the corner, and many hearts, especially among the young, are happy and excited over this prospect. For us as Christians, of course, life as whole should involve this sense of joyful anticipation. One day we are going to live in Heaven, and there be immensely happy as we see God face to face; we’ll be reunited with our loved ones who’ve gone before us, all our sufferings and problems will disappear forever, and all our hopes and dreams will be fulfilled in a glorious and perfect way.

Even now, as we live in this “vale of tears,” with worries, fears, disappointments, failures, and various crosses to bear, the Lord provides wildflowers, or reminders of His love, in the form of various blessings: the people in our lives, the talents we possess, the opportunities we’re given, the prayers that have been answered, the problems that somehow were solved in a way we could never have imagined, the second chances we were given, the undeserved mercy we’ve received again and again, and so on. In the midst of our day to day struggles, it’s easy to overlook the blessings of God and the unfolding of His plan—but everything does serve a purpose, and living in a spirit of hope does make perfect sense.

Even when life is marked by tragedy and uncertainty, something wonderful is around the corner; Jesus is the Messiah and Savior, and Heaven is waiting for those who place their trust in Him. We must be like that brave and hope-filled woman who, even as her family suffered a devastating loss, took the time to gather wildflowers as a reminder to her family of the beauty and wonder of life. Our compassionate words and example, our friendly and welcoming attitude, and our willingness to let Christ’s love flow through us, may be just enough to help someone else hold on in the midst of suffering, and choose to hope instead of surrendering to a sense of tragedy or emptiness in life. These remaining days of Advent are a symbol of our years on earth—and just as surely as Christmas will come this year, so will Christ’s Kingdom be opened to those who welcome Jesus into their hearts.

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Written by
Fr Joseph Esper