This Very Night

(Homily for Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle C)

Bottom line: None of us knows how or when he will die. Jesus reminds us to be prepared: This very day, this very night, God may require one's soul.

Once an elderly lady approached a priest. She told him that her husband had recently died and she was going to make a significant donation to the parish. She then revealed her plan to give the bulk of her estate to the Church. The priest was grateful, but also curious. He mentioned that most people seemed almost automatically to will everything to the children. "I know they do," said the woman. Then she smiled, "but I want my children to be sad when I die!"

Each person of course has to decide what to do with their estate, but one thing is clear. As Jesus points out today, none of us can take it with us. I have done a lot of funerals, but I have never seen a hearse with U-Haul following it. As Job said, "naked I came into this world and naked I shall depart."

That is a simple, obvious truth - yet so hard for us to really believe. In the parable Jesus speaks about a man who thought that his riches could bring him security. You and I may not be particularly rich, but we could say things like, "Well, I have my home paid for. I've got social security, a small pension. I guess I can relax and enjoy myself." Jesus might say to us, "tonight your life will be demanded of you."

We should keep the end of our life before us - always. I'd like to tell you about four men who did this in an extraordinary way. They were World War II Chaplains on a ship called the "U.S.A.T. Dorchester." One of the chaplains was a Catholic priest, two were Protestant ministers and one a Jewish rabbi. None of course wanted to die, but as chaplains they spoke to the soldier about preparation for the true life.

On February 3, 1943, as they crossed the North Atlantic Ocean, a torpedo struck the Dorchester. The lights went out; in panic, the soldiers scrambled from their beds to the main deck. Only a few of the lifeboats worked and as the shipped listed, some fell into the ice water.

One of the survivors told about landing in the water near the ship. Realizing that the ship would soon sink and could drag him under, he swam for all his might. His life preserver had a small red light, which a life boat saw and hauled him aboard. He told about looking back at the ship and seeing other small red lights "like a Christmas tree." At the bow of the ship stood four dimly outlined figures - none of them evidenced the characteristic red light. The four chaplains had given their life jackets to others.

Above the noise of the waves, the soldier began to hear music. It came from the direction of the four figures. The Jewish rabbi was chanting a prayer in Hebrew. Then the soldier heard a Latin hymn - the Catholic priest, he said, had a beautiful Irish voice. The Protestant ministers sang a soft Gospel hymn. The four chaplains had locked arms. They sang and prayed to encourage the others. Of the 904 men aboard the Dorchester, over six hundred died that night - including the four chaplains.*

Some people say they would prefer to die in their sleep. My mom died that way - no sign of struggle when we found her body the next morning. But there is much to be said for the way those four chaplains died - fully awake, opening their hearts to meet God. My dad died that way - receiving Holy Communion as Viaticum, minutes before he died. I personally pray for that kind of death.

But, to be honest, none of us knows how or when he will die. Jesus reminds us to be prepared: Of any person - of you or me - this very day, this very night, God may require one's soul.

**********

*American Public Media has audio programs on The Four Chaplains and Faith and Values Media has a well-done video titled "The Four Chaplains: Sacrifice at Sea."

Spanish Version

From Archives (18th Sunday, Year C):

2013: Rich in What Matters to God
2010: This Very Night
2007: Vanity of Vanities
2004: Midsummer Day's Wake-Up
2001: What Matters to God
1998: The Rich Fool and The Wise Poor Man

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

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