Sunday, November 29, 2020

‘Signs’—and the Coronavirus Pandemic


(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on November 29, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7; Psalm 80:2-19; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2020]

The Five Man Electrical Band said it well in a song they released back in 1971—a song that went to number 3 on the Billboard Charts: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.”

In today’s gospel reading from Mark 13, Jesus talks about his second coming at the end of time.  He tells his disciples (and that includes all of us) to watch and to stay alert, because the exact moment of this event is hidden from our eyes.  Jesus says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or in the morning.”

But earlier in chapter 13 he makes it clear that, even though we can’t know when it will come, we can expect to see some visible signs that the end is near: earthquakes, wars, famines—and even religious deceptions.  

Now to some extent, signs like these are always around; they’re always present in the world.  They’re never entirely absent—and they never will be, until the end of time—although they might be more numerous during certain years and during certain periods of human history. This year, for example, we’ve had 30 named storms and 13 hurricanes in the Atlantic Ocean alone!  That’s a record for one season.

But you could make the very strong case that even in the quietest of times—even when there are relatively few wars and natural disasters—the signs are literally all around us. 

Remember again the “prophetic” words of the Five Man Electrical Band: “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign.”

Let me give you some examples of what I mean: 

  • Have you read the obituary section of the newspaper today?  A lot of people I know read that section first (just to make sure their name isn’t in there!).  I mention this because every obituary—every death notice—is a sign!
  • Every hair that falls out of your scalp is a sign. 
  • Every lost job is a sign.
  • Every sickness is a sign.
  • Every broken relationship is a sign.
  • Graduating from high school or college is a sign.
  • Retirement is a sign.
  • A child who gets married or moves away from home is a sign.

In a remote sense, all these things are signs to us that Jesus is coming again at the end of time, because they are signs that this life is fragile and only temporary!

On that note, without a doubt the most noteworthy and far-reaching “sign” of the end that we’ve all experienced during the past year is the coronavirus pandemic.  And we’re still experiencing it! 

I say this because the virus has been teaching us a lot about how fragile and how brief our lives on this earth really are.


  •  It’s taught us, for example, that we’re not as in control of things as we might think we are.  You can do all the right things—take all the prescribed precautions—and still get sick.  Thus it’s taught us that we’re ultimately in God’s hands and not our own. 
  • The virus has taught us that life is a gift—but a very fragile gift: a gift that can very quickly be taken away.
  • It’s taught us that we do not have a lasting city on this earth.  Our true home is somewhere else.
  •  The virus has taught us not to make idols of the things of this world.  Hulk Hogan, the professional wrestler, reminded people of this in something he posted on Instagram in early April, at the beginning of the lockdown.  Hulk is not best known for his wisdom, but this was rather profound.  He said, “God has taken away everything we worship.  God said, ‘You want to worship athletes, I will shut down the stadiums. You want to worship musicians, I will shut down civic centers. You want to worship actors, I will shut down theaters. You want to worship money, I will shut down the economy and collapse the stock market. You don’t want to go to church and worship me, I will make it where you can’t go to a church.’”  At least one more could be added to Hogan’s list: “You want to worship sex, I’ll make it unsafe for you to come any closer than 6 feet to another person.”
  •  Finally, this virus has taught us that our relationship with the Lord needs to be the most important relationship of our life, because it’s only God who will be with us always—in every situation we experience.  And it’s God whom we will face at the end of it all.  But, as Jesus says in this gospel reading, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming.”  We do not know the day or the hour of our own death or of the end of the world, so we need to be ready ALWAYS!  That’s the bottom line.                                                           

The Five Man Electrical Band ended the refrain of their 1971 hit with the simple question, “Can’t you read the sign?”

Well, for all of us who know Jesus Christ and his Gospel, the decisive question isn’t “Can’t you read the sign?” it’s “WILL you read the signs—the signs given by the pandemic, and the other signs God gives you in this life?  WILL you choose to read them?” 

The signs are literally all around us.  They’re part of the fabric of life.  We all can read them; we all have that innate ability.  The real challenge is to make the choice to read them, and to reject the choice that many people make to ignore them completely.

May this Advent be a time for us to read the signs God is giving to us, and to respond to those signs as the Lord wants us to: by giving our hearts more completely to Jesus, by being faithful to Mass, by receiving the Eucharist worthily, by getting to Confession, and by reaching out to those in need with the love of Christ.

And may God give us the grace to choose to do those things even after Advent is over—until the day that Jesus chooses to come for us.