A few years back my family sat down and made a plan about what we would do should there be a natural disaster or a terrorist attack. We determined where we’ll meet, where we’ll go, who our out-of-town contact will be, how much food and water and other supplies we need to stockpile, and we decided to get one of those hand-crank radios and cell-phone rechargers. After having lived through 9/11, the anthrax scare, that hurricane that knocked out our power and water for days, and in light of all the talk about avian bird flu, we want to be prepared as best we can, should something ever happen again.
As citizens, our government tells us that we should all be prepared. As Christians, however, it’s even more important that we prepare for the second coming of our Lord. This is the central message of today’s gospel parable of the wise and foolish virgins. Because while a terrorist attack or a natural disaster may never affect us, we know for a fact that one day Jesus will indeed come again in power and glory, to judge the living and the dead, and to establish his kingdom in its fullness. We “know neither the day nor the hour,” as Jesus said. But his return is guaranteed, and we need to be prepared.
But are we prepared? Ask yourself this: If you knew that Jesus would be returning later today, what would you do? Would you rush to tell certain people that you love them, especially those you hadn’t told in a while? Would you go to church; pray your rosary; open your Bible; or make an act of contrition? Are there people to whom you would apologize? Is there a favorite charity to which you’d make a hasty donation? Would you start refining your excuses for when you met Jesus face-to-face? Would you weep with regret? Would you be afraid? Or would you be overcome with joy and go out to greet theLord, just as the wise virgins ran out to meet the bridegroom when they heard he was coming? How we answer this question is probably a good indication of whether we’re really prepared for Jesus’ return or not.
It’s been said before that we should live every day as if it’s the first day of the rest of our lives. And that’s not necessarily bad advice. But from a Christian perspective, maybe it’s better to say that we should live each day as if it’s the last day of our life. Because it might just be! And if it is, there might be some things we need to do in order to truly be prepared. For instance, is there a sin we need to confess? A wound we need to heal? A restitution to make? Priorities we need to shift? A habit we need to kick? A resentment to let go of? A good intention we need to act upon? A relationship to restore? If there are, we should never put off until tomorrow what we can do today. Because when it comes to preparing for the Lord’s return, there is no better time than the present.
Preparing for Jesus’ second coming will involve challenge, change, and some painful sacrifice on our part. However, Jesus’ return is not something we should anticipate with fear. Instead, we should look forward to it with joy and eager expectation. This is why the New Testament ends with the prayer: “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” This is also why, at every Mass, at the end of the Our Father, the priest offers a prayer that says “we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Today’s gospel parable spoke of Jesus’ return in terms of a bridegroom coming to begin a wonderful wedding banquet to which all of us have been invited. Surely, that is a celebration that we should want to begin sooner, and not later. As St. Augustine once wrote, “When (that day) puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.”
Sometimes, however, people are afraid of the prospect of Jesus’ return. This may be because they know in their heart that they just aren’t prepared. Or maybe it’s because they imagine Jesus, not as a merciful, loving Lord, but as one who seeks only to destroy and condemn. Or it may be because they misunderstand the Bible. We saw this misunderstanding a great deal amongst some Christian groups as the year 2000 approached, as they preached a message of fear and coming calamity.
But do you remember what Pope John Paul II did before the year 2000? He encouraged everyone to prepare for the third Christian millennium with more fervent prayer, greater devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, a renewed love for the Mass, and greater acts of justice and charity for the poor. But he didn’t forecast doom or preach a message of fear. Instead, he told us all to “Be not afraid!” and he declared 2000 to be a “Jubilee Year” – a special year of celebration and grace. And when 2000 finally came, he led us in joyful prayer, and then he enjoyed the fireworks in Rome.
Pope John Paul’s approach to the coming of the new millennium is a model for how we should anticipate Jesus’ return. We do need to prepare, but with hope and joy, not worry and fear. Because if we’re really prepared, there’s really nothing to be afraid of. Consider St. Francis of Assisi. While he was working in a garden, someone asked what he would do if he knew that today was the last day of his life. He smiled and said, “I’d keep hoeing this row of beans!” He was so well prepared that the prospect of meeting his Lord didn’t change his plans one bit. May we be as well prepared, as together we say: “Come, Lord Jesus!”