Sunday, December 02, 2012

Interpreting 'the Signs'

Ben Petrick

(First Sunday of Advent (C): This homily was given on December 2, 2012, at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Luke 21:25-28, 34-36.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2012]

I was reading the autobiography of Ben Petrick the other day (more about who he is in a minute), and I came across these lines:

The [Colorado] Rockies send me to the Arizona Fall League.  [One day] I’m sitting in my apartment and typing on my computer, when I realize my left hand has a slight tremor and is trailing my right hand. I hold my hands up and wiggle my fingers, like a magician saying “Hocus Pocus.”  My left hand is significantly slower.

I soon notice that on long jogs, the toes on my left foot start to cramp.  I see a team doctor, who has no answer.  (“Forty Thousand to One,” page 24.)

Well, that team doctor might not have an answer, but I sure do: “Ben Petrick, you have Parkinson’s Disease.”  And how do I know that (aside from the fact that I’m currently reading his book)?

It’s because the 3 symptoms he mentions here—the hand tremor, the inability to type quickly, and the foot cramp when exercising—those are the very same primary symptoms that I have (which is noteworthy, because there are lots of other symptoms  of Parkinson’s that the two of us could have, and which other people with the disease do have).

Ben Petrick, by the way, was a catcher, and a top professional baseball prospect in the mid-to-late 1990s.  Most experts thought that he was All-Star and possibly even Hall of Fame material.  He was that good.  But his career was over almost before it began, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1999—at the age of 22.

I should count my blessings that I didn’t get the disease until I was in my early 50s! 

I mention this today—I mention Ben Petrick and his current physical situation—to make a point about “signs”.

The Colorado Rockies’ team doctor who examined Ben in 1999 didn’t know what was wrong with him, because he did not know how to interpret the “signs”—that is to say, the symptoms—that he observed in Ben’s body.

But I do know how to interpret those signs!  (Quite frankly, I wish I didn’t, but I do!)  I know what they mean; I know their significance; I know where they point (which is right to Parkinson’s Disease!).

In today’s gospel, Jesus talks to us about other signs—other signs that we need to know how to interpret.  These are the signs of “the end”: the signs that will precede his second coming at the end of the world.  But since many of us—perhaps most or all of us—will not be around at the end of the world (unless, of course, the Mayan calendar is right!), these signs can and should be applied to the moment of our physical death, since that will be the moment when Jesus “comes again” to us, personally, to be our judge.

Jesus says, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves [that phrase has more meaning for us after Hurricane Sandy, does it not?]. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

A couple of things to notice about what Jesus says there.  First of all, the signs he speaks of: celestial phenomena, turbulent seas, terrible storms—in other gospels he also mentions things like earthquakes and wars and rumors of wars—these realities are, to some extent, ALWAYS with us!  For example, we may not have Hurricane Sandys all the time (thank God!), but we do have some pretty nasty Nor’easters on a fairly regular basis!  And the same is true of most of these other signs.

And that’s precisely the point that Jesus is making here: Since these signs are, to some extent, always present, we need to live as if he could come again for us at any time.  Because he could!  We need to be vigilant; we need to be ready.  There’s an old song by Tim McGraw that has the line in it, “Live like you were dying.”  The song is about a man in his early 40s who gets diagnosed with a terminal illness.  His message to his son is to live life to the fullest on the natural level—to live, in other words, like you’re dying, like you don’t have a lot of time left here on this earth.

Well, as Catholics we would say that the same message could be applied—and should be applied—to the spiritual dimension of our lives, since our souls are immortal and therefore will live forever! 

Tim McGraw actually points to this truth about the need for ongoing spiritual reform and repentance in his song when the dying father sings the words, “I loved deeper and I spoke sweeter, and I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.”

It’s not a coincidence that this gospel is being read on the first Sunday of the season of Advent.  During this sacred time of the year, we are supposed to be focusing not only on buying gifts and preparing ourselves to commemorate the coming of Christ into the world 2000 years ago; we’re also supposed to be focusing on preparing ourselves to meet Jesus Christ when he comes for us again—either at the end of time or at the end of our earthly lives.

That’s why both Father Giudice and I will be hearing confessions every Saturday for the next 3 weeks, from 3:30-4:30p.m.! 

I just thought I’d mention that.

Let me close my homily today by pointing out that there are 3 different reactions that Jesus mentions in this gospel to these ever-present signs in the heavens and on earth.  The first is confusion; the second is fear; and the third is confidence.  Confusion and fear are experienced by those who do not know how to interpret the signs—and who consequently are not prepared for the Lord when comes.  As Jesus puts it, “On earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed [i.e., confused] by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will die of fright [in other words, of fear] in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

But the men and women who do know what the signs mean, and who respond to them with faith, and repentance, and a true conversion of heart can be confident—confident even in the midst of the chaos!  Jesus says to them here, “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.

May the Lord bless us with that kind of confidence always, and especially at the end of our lives.