Sunday, December 03, 2017

’Watching Lessons’ from a ‘Watching Dog’

Summer at the front window: "He's back!"

(First Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 3, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Mark 13: 33-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: First Sunday of Advent 2017]

What does Jesus mean when he tells us to “watch”—as he does in today’s gospel text from Mark 13?

What kind of “watching” is he talking about here?  Is it the kind of watching we do at a football game?  Or at a movie?  Or when we turn on the television set?

The answer, of course, is no.

Jesus is talking here about something a lot deeper: something which involves our eyes, for sure—but not only our eyes.  For Jesus, “watching” involves everything about us: all our thoughts, and words, and actions.  It involves our entire personhood.

To “watch” in the sense that Jesus uses the term in this Scripture passage means “to prepare yourself for a personal encounter—a personal encounter with the living God that will definitely happen, although you don’t know when.”

In speaking to us here about his second coming at the end of the world, Jesus says, “Watch, therefore: you do not know when the Lord of the house is coming, whether in the evening, or at midnight, or at the cockcrow, or in the morning.  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!’”

In other words, Jesus is saying, “Prepare yourself!  Prepare yourself for the ultimate encounter with me that every human being will have, either at the end of time (if you live that long), or at the moment of your physical death (if you don’t happen to survive until the end of time).  And do everything possible to remain in that state of preparedness—always!”

This past Monday we had a funeral Mass here at St. Pius for a 51-year-old man who died suddenly and tragically at work.  I’m sure many of you know the story.  When that man woke up on the morning of November 20, 2017, he didn’t know that the “Lord of the house” was coming for him that day.

But the Lord did come.

You never know.

That’s why “watching”—that’s why being prepared to meet the Lord whenever he does choose to come—is so important.

Let me share with you now a few insights on how to be a good “watcher” courtesy of one of the very best “watchers” I know: the pastor’s dog!  Yes, you heard me correctly: one of the best “watchers” I know is Fr. Najim’s golden doodle, whose name is Summer.  So you might want to entitle this homily: “Watching Lessons from a Watching Dog”—although in Summer’s case she doesn’t watch for Jesus, she watches for her master (who’s at the center of her universe, as Jesus is supposed to be at the center of ours).

Her watching, first of all, is constant—as Jesus said ours is supposed to be.  When Fr. Najim is not around, Summer is always waiting (and usually looking) for him to return.  In fact, when he comes over to church for Mass in the morning, she’ll very often take a seat on the couch in his office and stare out the front widow—totally motionless—waiting for him to come out the front door of the church and back to the rectory.  And she’ll stay there for the entire Mass!  I’ve tried on several occasions to coax her away from the window—to no avail.  She’ll just turn her head to look at me, and then turn right back to window.

Wouldn’t it be great if we “watched” for the Lord in our lives with that same kind of devotion? 

For Summer, Fr. Najim is number 1, no doubt about it.  She likes me—and the rectory staff—and the children at the school—and pretty much everybody else.  But, in her eyes there is no one like her master!  For her, he’s in another category entirely—just like the Lord is supposed to be in his own category for us!  Jesus said we’re to love God (and only God) with all our heart and soul and mind and strength.  He’s to be first in our lives.  And yet, how often do other people and other things (like sports) take first place?

If we want to be a good “watcher”, we have to follow Summer’s example and put our master—our heavenly Master—where he belongs on our priority list. 

And we have to be attentive to him and his word—as Summer is attentive to Fr. Najim and his word.  I’m sure it won’t surprise you to know that in a room full of people, Fr. Najim is the one she will acknowledge first and listen to!  Yes, she’ll eventually make the rounds to try to get everyone in the place to pet her and give her some affection, but when her master is present, he gets her attention before anyone else does.

And that’s the way it should be!  Just as when Jesus is present with us here at Mass (in word and in sacrament), he deserves our attention—our full and undivided attention!  And yet, how often are we thinking about other things when we’re here (what we’re going to do after Mass; what we did before Mass; how much more Christmas shopping we have to do; what we’re going to have for lunch)?

Summer doesn’t get distracted in the presence of her master; we need to pray not to get distracted in the presence of ours.

Now this is not to say that the relationship Summer has with her master is perfect.  It’s far from it.  Without getting into all the colorful details, let me simply say that there have been times when Fr. Najim’s golden doodle has needed to “repent” (as much as dogs can) for something she did when her master wasn’t looking!  On more than one occasion I’ve seen her walking around the rectory with her tail between her legs.

But, thankfully, her master has always forgiven her for her transgressions.

Our divine Master will also forgive us for ours, if we repent—as hopefully we all will during this season of Advent, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation.

Remember: to “watch” means to prepare yourself for a personal encounter with the living God at the end of your life or at the end of time—whichever comes first.  Well, since we’re all sinners, being forgiven for your sins is essential to that preparation process.  It’s not optional!

It can’t be.

Which brings us to the biggest difference between Summer and us with respect to “watching”—and I’ll conclude with this thought:

The “watching” Summer does in her life is done by nature, by instinct.  Her daily vigil at the window; her devotion to Fr. Najim; her attentiveness to his words; her “repentance” for her “sins”—these are all instinctual responses.  And that’s fine, because she’s a dog.

But for you and for me, watching is a decision—a personal decision—a personal decision, rooted in grace, for which we are responsible before God.

May the Lord help us, therefore, to make that decision, today and every day.