A poem was once written about a tragic situation in which five people unnecessarily froze to death around a campfire one winter. It was a bitterly cold night, and there was no shelter available. The fire was dying out and needed to be replenished. Each of the five persons had a large stick, or piece of wood, that could have been added to the fire to keep it going—but all of them refused to do so, for various selfish or illogical reasons. For instance, a woman refused to relinquish her stick because there were men in the group, and she had been mistreated by other men on various occasions. A homeless man decided not to add his stick to the fire because he resented the presence of a rich man; the rich man in turn chose not to contribute his stick of wood because doing so would simply be helping someone else who was obviously shiftless and lazy. The fourth person, a woman, refused to give away her stick because several of her companions were not of her religion. The final man, the only African-American in the group, withheld his stick from the fire because all the others were white, and this was his way of getting even with white people for all the ways they had oppressed him and others of his race.
The fire completely died out, and before morning, all five persons froze to death— simply because each person foolishly and selfishly refused to use his or her stick to keep it going. (William J. Bausch, 60 More Seasonal Homilies, p. 15)
The sad poem ended with these tragic lines:
Six logs held fast in death’s still hand Was proof of human sin.
They did not die from the cold without; They died from the cold within.
If our hearts are closed to the people around us, we will not be prepared for the events to come. Only when our hearts are truly open to others, are they also open to God’s saving grace.
In the Gospel of Luke (21:25-28, 34-36), Jesus speaks some sobering and even terrifying words: there will be unsettling signs in the sky, unexplained roaring and waves in the sea, and fear and dismay among the nations of the earth; the powers of the heavens will be shaken, and many will die of fright anticipating what is to come. All these things will lead up to Christ’s return and the Last Judgment. However, Our Lord commands us to stand erect and raise our heads—in other words, to look forward to His Second Coming. The only way to do this, of course, is by living out our faith, fulfilling our religious and spiritual responsibilities and showing compassion for the needs and suffering of those around us. As St. Paul says in his Letter to the Thessalonians (3:12-4:2), we must “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” The prophet Jeremiah (33:14-16) foretold a day when God’s people would dwell in security and peace—and as long as we are living as true followers of Jesus, putting Him at the center of our lives, we will share in the blessing and joy of this promise.
Like the vast majority of people, I do not have mystical experiences, or hear heavenly voices, receive visions, private revelations, or messages from Heaven—but I serve as spiritual director to well over half-a-dozen people who do, most of them from other parishes and several of them from out-of-state. Occasionally a message from Jesus or Mary is given to the alleged visionary or messenger for me personally, giving directions or containing words of warning or encouragement. As you might imagine, messages like this are a great privilege, and a great responsibility—including discerning whether or not they’re authentic. Just over a week ago a woman I’ve known for over a dozen years received an alleged message for me from Jesus, directing me to help prepare people for the difficult times that are coming. Our Lord lamented the fact that people are too busy preparing for Christmas to take the time to reflect on what Christmas really means, and that many parents are focused only on giving their children material gifts, without teaching them to seek the infinitely more valuable spiritual gifts He offers. Jesus also complained that, even with a majority of Christians, He’s only an afterthought; many people pray to Him only when they’re in trouble or need something. Our Lord is asking us to repent of these sins, and in particular, to rely on the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Eucharist. Jesus reminds us we must never be afraid of confessing our sins to a priest, but we must do so without holding anything back, in order to receive His forgiveness. Furthermore, He tells us Holy Communion is a far greater Gift than we can ever imagine—but He warns us we must only receive it while in a state of grace.
Other alleged messages from Heaven speak of the importance of having a blessed and consecrated image of the Holy Family in our homes; of how preparing our souls for troubled times is more important than any physical preparations we may make; and of how, as long as we’re generous in sharing our material resources with others, God will miraculously provide for our needs. I personally believe we’re nowhere near the end of the world, but we are approaching a crucial time in human history—a time of testing in which we’ll be forced to choose between the teachings and commandments of Jesus and the values of this world.
It’s possible to ignore private revelations, but we have a moral obligation to take seriously Our Lord’s words in the Gospel. If we refuse to think about any of this; or decide to avoid potential embarrassment by sharing our faith with others; or choose not to give our non-practicing Catholic family members, relatives, and friends religious gifts or books for Christmas that encourage them to return to church, then we are being like those five foolish and selfish persons who refused to do their part in keeping the life-giving campfire burning. An honest look at today’s world shows that many things are gravely wrong, and so a head-in-the-sand or “What, me worry?” approach is not only useless, but spiritually dangerous. Instead of being upset or afraid, however, we must truly and completely love God and show compassion to the people around us—for this sort of trusting response will allow the Lord to guide us, bless us, and protect us.