A small private plane was flying with three passengers on board: an old priest, a rich businessman and a boy scout. Suddenly, the engine sputtered and stopped altogether. They all rushed to get their parachutes. They were horrified to realize that there were not enough parachutes for all of them. One of them will be left without one. The pilot took one, saying, “I have a wife and two kids. They need me.” And off he jumped. The businessman, seeing that the boy was holding a parachute, grabbed it away from him, saying, “I am a very important person in this world. I must not die!’ And putting the straps on his shoulders, he quickly jumped out of the plane. Only the priest and the boy were left on the plane. The priest told the boy, “Son, take the last parachute. I am old and I have no family. I’m ready to leave this world. You are still young and have a great future. Save your life.” The boy, with a naughty smile, said, “Don’t worry, Father. There are still two parachutes left. The ‘very important man in the world’ just jumped out wearing my knapsack.”
We are now in the new liturgical year, and this is the first Sunday of Advent. The Season of Advent is a period of four Sundays in preparation for Christmas. But the readings are not telling us about chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus or telling us to start decorating our homes for Christmas, or about the forthcoming parties and vacations. Rather, they are talking about the horrible events of the end-times. In the Gospel, Jesus describes the events with clarity: the terrifying signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, the roaring of the sea and the waves, and people will die of fright. Some of us may even wonder: Is Jesus such a killjoy who likes to spoil the fun?
The Gospel, instead of spoiling the fun, sets everything in proper perspective. St. Luke is not intending to terrify us with such cataclysmic words. He is just stating the truth and reality of our earthly existence: everything in this world is passing. Nothing is permanent. This world and everything in it is passing. Our life, our body is passing. Rather than frighten us, these are words of hope. In the face of the fragility and contingency of life and of the whole world, Jesus, the Son of Man will come “in a cloud with power and great glory.” “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”
The message is quite clear. Let us not pin our hopes on anything in this world, for surely we will be disappointed. Just like the man in our story who jumped out of the airplane, not with a parachute on his back, but with the boy’s knapsack. And this is what is truly frightening: to face all these tribulations without God, and to place everything entirely in the hands of man. Let us therefore look up to Jesus. Let us watch and be vigilant for Jesus. In the midst of all these passing realities, God is our only assurance and hope for eternity and fullness of life.
That is why Jesus admonishes us: “Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.” Tribulations, troubles and disasters are already here. These are clear signs of the unreliability and limitations of our earthly existence and worldly realities. But we have to be vigilant and ask God in prayer so that despite all these, we will still be able to stand before the Son of Man and be saved. Becoming too absorbed in worldly anxieties, being intoxicated with our selfish ambitions and thirst for power, being immersed in fleeting pleasures and luxury are definitely not the proper ways to “be able to stand before the Son of Man.”
St. Paul exhorts us, therefore: love one another more than ever, conduct yourselves to be pleasing before the Lord, and to be blameless in His sight.
The Advent Season is a time for preparation: for Christmas, for the passing of things, for our own death. The readings are not spoilers; they are reminders. They remind us that everything is passing, and so let us look up to Jesus. He is not just the knapsack; he is the parachute. He will not fail. He is our only hope for salvation and eternal glory.
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002