19th Sunday in Ordinary time

There was no advance warning. The plane was approaching the airport in a controlled manner. Nothing looked to be out of the ordinary. But when the moment came for the plane to touch down, it made a hard landing. So hard in fact that oxygen masks descended and smoke filled the cabin. Then hell broke loose. Panicking passengers tried to escape from the plane. Astonishingly, many of them were pulling their personal luggage down from the overhead lockers, contrary to the safety procedures, dramatically slowing down the evacuation. Just seconds after the passengers and crew had left the plane, the fuel exploded and the plane was engulfed in flames. Death was evaded by just a whisker in Dubai airport last week. And then there’s a story of an American woman out on a relaxing evening stroll in London. Perhaps she was mulling over the past few weeks of her stay, or perhaps she was looking forward to going home, as she was just a few hours from her flight back to the USA. Suddenly, without any reason or motive, she was stabbed to death in an instant, the only fatality in a random knife attack.

Dreams, expectations and plans are things that propel our lives, even if we don’t realise that. Even those who seem to live in the past, recalling the good old days, yearn to re-live those positive memories in the present and thereby fill their future. We can have different dreams and hold different expectations: in war-torn countries people yearn for peace; those in economic turmoil yearn for stabilisation; many of you yearn to see your children and grandchildren happy and fulfilling their potential. Whatever those dreams and expectations may be, all of us have one thing in common: we are on a journey to our future.

The quality of this journey is the product of several factors. Some of these are completely beyond our control, like nature and its laws; we have partial control over others, like the political or social aspects of our lives; and there are those factors we can control more or less completely by making our own decisions and acting upon them. One aspect we tend to forget, or that we try to avoid completely, is that our lives can come to an abrupt end. I’m astonished at the way people react and sometimes reprimand me when I mention the possibility of my own sudden death – although I usually say it jokingly. We rarely allow the subject of death, particularly sudden or unexpected death, into the equation of our lives. We tend to take into consideration every possibility bar this one.

Jesus in today’s gospel urges his followers to take such an eventuality into account. Not in a gloomy, joyless, resigned fashion. In a parable he presents the scenario of men waiting for their master to come back from a wedding feast, and then being served by him at table upon his return. There is one sentence in this parable that I think is particularly important: ‘See that you are dressed for action and have your lamps lit.’ The awareness of death coming at any time should not paralyse me, but ought to push me towards making the best use of my time and of the opportunities given to me. It keeps my thinking in the correct perspective, whether in a material or a spiritual sense. One of the survivors of that knife attack in London said: ‘The last few hours have taught me to appreciate every second. It was a matter of seconds, of feet and breath. You need to spend every minute strengthening your family.’