Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Jan. 24, 2021. Reading: Jonah 3:1-10. Theme: The Most Basic and Important Act of Life
Today’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah carries a very important, indeed- lifesaving message for us, and it’s this in a nutshell: Never forget what life on planet Earth is really all about. Never forget who placed you here. Never forget that one day it will all come to an end. Never forget that you will return to the One from whom you came to receive from him the destination of eternal life or eternal death.
This reminds me of the old-school catechism lesson back in the day which many older Catholics learned as children. It puts the basic theme of this important message into two simple questions-and-answers: First, Who made you? God made me. And second, Why did God make you? God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life and then be happy with Him forever in the next. But sometimes - ok to be honest, probably most of the time - we forget about the temporary nature of our earthly lives and we act as if they will never end. Sometimes, we need to be shocked back into reality.
You might remember that on Sat., Jan. 13, 2017, the people of Hawaii received this shock when they were informed that a hostile ballistic missile had been launched directly at them. They were told to seek shelter immediately. For a short but frightening amount of time they did not know that this news had been a mistake. But in the meantime, there were, of course, varied reactions to this life-shaking announcement. The reactions of Catholic Hawaiians to this Jonah-like warning - which have been preserved for us in diocesan papers - provide us with a lesson that we should take to heart and never forget: that the most basic and important act of life is to prepare to go to God from whom we came and enter eternity.
Those few who could reach shelter quickly did so. But most could not. Those who could not say that they took their children with them into their living rooms where recited the Act of Contrition since they could not get to Confession, and then began to pray the rosary. Now keep in mind that most were not people who usually prayed this way very often, but when push comes to shove, they knew to whom they should go. They recalled that the most basic and important act of life is to prepare to go to God from whom they came and enter eternity.
On that Saturday morning, a group of deacons along with their wives were on an isolated retreat and without their cell phones so they were unaware of what was happening. They were suddenly surprised to see their Bishop running into their gathering wearing only a t-shirt and a pair of shorts! He quickly informed them about the alert and then gave them General Absolution, which is an emergency form of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, when there isn’t time for everyone to individually confess their sins. There had been no time for the bishop to waste by dressing up with formality, because he knew what the most basic and important act of life is, so he rushed over to the chapel to help the deacons and their wives to prepare to go to God from whom they came and enter eternity.
Later that same evening, even though the missile alert had been revealed as a mistake, priests tell us that confession lines were out the door and around the block and continued to be so throughout the night. All the next day, which was a Sunday, the parishes reported churches packed to standing room only. Now most were not people who usually went to confession or attended Mass very often, but they had been shocked and when push comes to shove, they knew to whom they should go. They knew what the most basic and important act of life is to prepare to go to God from whom they came and enter eternity.
It’s too bad that it often takes the shock of trauma to shake us up and wake us up. But maybe that’s a positive way for us to look at our present and seemingly endless COVID pandemic. If we have spiritually-tuned-in ears to hear it and spiritually-tuned-in eyes to see it, then COVID delivers to us the same message that Jonah spoke to the people of Nineveh: Never forget what life on planet Earth is really all about. Never forget who placed you here. Never forget that one day it will all come to an end. Never forget that you will return to the One from whom you came to receive from him the destination of eternal life or eternal death. Never forget the most basic and important act of life.