why it is better not to know the day nor the hour

Posted on December 3, 2017 at 5:30 AM

May my words be in the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


I once saw the writer Anthony Burgess being interviewed on television. Burgess is most famous for his novel 'A Clockwork Orange', a work which explores deeply the issue of the nature of free-will, and which was later made into a movie which, while controversial, has long been considered something of a classic. He also co-wrote the screenplay for Franco Zeffirelli's highly praised mini-series 'Jesus of Nazareth'. Burgess was regaling his interviewer with the tale of how he first became very serious about writing. He had, it seemed, been diagnosed with a serious illness as a young man and been given six months to live. 'That must have been awful,' said the interviewer. 'Not at all,' chortled Burgess. 'Most people don't know if they'll be alive in the morning or even five minutes from now. But suddenly I knew I was going to live for six months – I had been told so by some very knowledgeable medical men. So I knew that if a started a project as long-term as writing a book I'd live long enough to see it to completion. And so I got started writing straight away!'


Burgess was, of course, being doubly facetious. He was an old man when he was telling this story, and mocking the doctors who had been so mistaken in their fatal diagnosis. And he knew full well that even had they been correct, their prediction of how long he might have left to live in no way guaranteed he had that much time left. He could still have been hit by a bus, suffer a heart attack, experience a sudden stroke, be beaten to death by muggers, fall down the stairs, drown in the bath, or any other of the myriad ways in which it is that we human beings may come to shake off this mortal coil. Burgess was born and raised a Catholic; and although he lapsed from his faith later in life, commentators on his works all agree that they are permeated with a Christian world-view. And he would have known as well as any man that we truly do not know the day nor the hour.


Our Lord speaks of this in our Gospel today (see below). It is not for us to know the day not the hour when he will return at the end of the ages. And, of course, just as we do not know when time and history and this world will end, neither do we know when our time in this life will come to an end.


Now some might think this is harsh of God. Would we not be better prepared for our last moments, better able to amend our ways and repent of our sins and so when we come to the end of our days be assured of leaving this life and entering into our heavenly reward if we knew the exact moment in advance; instead of risking being caught off guard and so end in that place where, as Jesus has told us, was prepared from the beginning for the devil and all his angels?


If you do happen to feel this way, then you are perhaps in for a surprise; for you will find that the Fathers of the Church, those great scholars and saints from the early centuries of the Christian Era, uniformly disagree with you. This is not surprising. For as I have already noted, these are saints – men of great sanctity. And men such as these understand that God's wisdom is greater than ours. He is all knowing; we are not. And if he has ordained that this is the way it must be, then we must humbly accept that it is so; and more, we must acknowledge that because of God's infinite wisdom then it must be, in fact, in our best interest that this is how it is and no other way.


But how exactly is it better not to know? How we any idea as to why it is? Well, this is a question that these same Church Fathers thought deeply about. They put it essentially like this. Suppose we all knew the day and the hour of our death. Some would still choose to lead good and holy lives. But more surely would think to themselves 'I have many years before I will die; and there are many temptations in the world about me. Why should I not indulge myself in these sinful passions to my heart's content; and then, when death begins to draw near, break off from them, repent, and lead a life of holiness for the time that remains to me?'


And it does not, I think, take the wisdom of a great saint to see the foolishness of that path. Such sinful indulgences are addictive indeed; the more we engage in them, the more we wish to, and the harder it is to stop. And the more steeped we become in them, the more difficult it is to recognise that we even do wrong by engaging in them. Few indeed are the individuals who would be strong enough to break away from their sins even as they drew close to the brink of eternity; and of those who did perhaps only a small number would have the strength to repent. Having spent all their years in wickedness and vice serving Satan, how likely is it that at the end they would find within themselves the holiness to serve God and him alone in their final moments? Not very likely at all, I would suggest; and so the Fathers of the Church thought as well.


And so instead God gave us the gift of uncertainty. We may not know the day not the hour, not because he wishes to toy with us in some way, but because he loves us. Not knowing spurs us on to live as if our Saviour and Judge might return at any moment; not knowing when we will may draw our last breath teaches us to live as if the next moment might be the one when we do indeed take that final breath.


And the sober truth is that one day we will be right. And when that day comes, if we have lived our lives as our Lord wishes us to – a life of holiness, a life of watchfulness and prayer – then we will be ready for his return or our deaths. And we will welcome that moment, even as we are welcomed by God to dwell with him, his angels, and all the saints in heaven; a welcome that I pray will be granted to all here - in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Matthew 25: 31-46

24 "But in those days, after that tribulation, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see the Son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven. 28 From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. 30 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33 Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time will come. 34 It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his servants in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. 35 Watch therefore--for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cock-crow, or in the morning -- 36 lest he come suddenly and find you asleep. 37 And what I say to you I say to all: Watch."

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