Chilling words: ‘You know neither the day nor the hour’

Some Sundays the Gospel can be terrifying, such as when Christ reminds us to be ready for our own death

By George Valadie

I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m willing to bet that—for at least a few of us—what we know about the words of Christ has come to us in very small doses.

A bit at a time, mostly at Mass, mostly on Sundays.

Scripture scholars we are not.

Some weeks the Gospel challenges us; the next week Jesus inspires us to go beyond what and where we thought we could. There are times His actions amaze, others when His words confound, and on occasion, the man just leaves me hanging.

And on more than a few occasions, when His parable ends—just in case there’s any doubt in our minds—he hammers home the point with a “You better not mess this up,” so to speak.

Those are the Sundays that terrify me.

One such parable has stuck with me for years, telling of the 10 virgins who went out to meet the late-arriving bridegroom; some were foolish, some were not; some brought enough oil, some did not; some had to run to the store, some did not; and some got in to the party … but some did not.

And His hammer?

“Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

Boom! And that’s just bone-chilling to me.

We lost a school parent recently that way. No heads up, no ailments, no time to get ready.

In our rational intellect, we of course understand that the moment of our death is unpredictable. But it means a lot more when we’re reminded by the Christ Himself.

I noticed, however, that Jesus never specifically says that He’s talking about our dying, though most of us generally accept that He is indeed referring to “the day and the hour” of our demise. Unknown and unknowable. So get ready. No, be ready. Even better, stay ready.

“Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

But is it possible that he could have also been talking about so much more than that one final moment of our lives?

Aren’t there all sorts of important “moments” that arrive equally suddenly? Unexpected chances to act, to make a difference?

Not only do most of these instants come and go without our knowing they were coming, but oftentimes, once concluded, we didn’t even know that they came.

Rosa Parks had such a moment. She comes to mind as I’m reminded this is the month she passed away not all that long ago.

I wasn’t on the bus to see her in action, but based on what I’ve read about her, she doesn’t strike me as a lady whose goal in life was to be anyone’s heroine. Given the climate of that day, and what she knew had befallen others of her race, I’d be surprised if she really had much intention of being a troublemaker either.

Mostly, I picture her as being too tired to move and too fed up with having to.

So she found herself face-to-face with two things: an angry enforcer of the rules and one of those unexpected moments of which Christ might well have been speaking.

The woman was “awake” and she was ready.

She is acclaimed—and rightfully so—because of her courage, her choice, her doing the hard thing when virtually everyone else would have done the other.

But my guess is that she acted that way because she had lived that way. And I think that’s exactly what Christ was talking about. Being ready. All the time. To do good.

Life had presented her with one of those slip-up-on-you moments she didn’t let pass. Her beliefs and her faith and her sense of right and wrong had prepared her.

We recall what she did that day; we should celebrate the life that led up to it.

On our end, we don’t have to tackle the global issues of racism or poverty to seize upon an unexpected moment. In fact, the great multitude of us don’t and won’t ever get that sort of chance.

Those are heavy and huge and mostly out of our reach.

I believe greatness of character—living a life that’s “ready” for the unexpected—should also be attributed to the student who invites the new kid to the lunch table. Or the household that welcomes an evacuee—or the family black sheep. The office worker who refuses to join in the gossip. The forgiving spouse who’s tempted to feel otherwise.

True, there’s no fear of Alabama jail time for failing to do any of these things, but Christ never made that a requisite.

Rather, He seemed to be talking about living the right kind of life. The kind of life from which goodness flows freely and readily at those unexpected and unforeseen moments that land in our laps more than we realize.

You know the kind …

Normally, you see him from a distance, but today your car put you face-to-face with that homeless man.

The Facebook post—and now the person—you cannot abide.

That random utility bill offering an option to donate $1 to the needy.

The food that was cold and late because of the kitchen—not your waitress.

These chances to make a difference arrive unexpectedly and way more frequently than we realize.

But I don’t think we want to miss any—because there most assuredly will be that one last day and hour.

Dear God—We are seldom confused about what is right and what is wrong. Our vision is clear, it’s our courage that’s cloudy. Please give us what we need. Amen.


George Valadie is president of Notre Dame High School in Chattanooga.

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