Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 38:1-6 / Matthew 8:5-13

Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live.

Bearing in mind that we are going to die one day has never been easy. Even in societies surrounded by death, say in Somalia where the terrible famine in the Horn of Africa continues, where some quarter of a million still suffer from hunger and malnutrition, and where it is estimated that, by the end of the famine, tens of thousands will have died for lack of food, it remains hard for any individual person to admit that he will die until death is finally upon him, and not always even then. It is all the more difficult to do so in societies, such as the affluent West, where death is constantly denied. Those who are dying we imagine do not want to hear about it, and those we cannot pretend are not tending towards the grave we place in clinical seclusion, far from any place they might upset our illusion of Olympian perpetual youth and vitality. Even among Christians, for whom the theme of memento mori was once common, certainly among Catholics and even, for a time, among Protestants, one is hard pressed to hear or read any counsel of being prepared for a good death.

Isaiah's words to Hezekiah thus strike us as perhaps a tad hard. In the midst of his illness, Hezekiah hears not soothing words from God's prophet, but merely an unsentimental assessment of his status: Take order with thy house, for thou shalt die, and not live. Yet, confronted with this news, Hezekiah takes no offense. Indeed, even having recited his virtues, his having walked before God in truth, and with a perfect heart, Hezekiah is led to tears. Likewise the centurion in the Gospel, desirous that the man in his care should receive the healing power of Jesus Christ, does not want to trouble him and have him enter under his roof. They know the gulf between their virtue and the righteousness God demands. More than that, they know what they have left undone for themselves and for the people entrusted to their care.

At the beginning of Lent, the Church puts before us these stark but true words spoken by the prophet to the king not as a matter of historical curiosity, but because they might just as well be said to each of us. Even for those who find themselves in possession of youth, strength, and seemingly unassailable health, it remains true that each of us will die. Whatever our plans for virtuous living, death will come to us and we will fall short of our brightest hopes and dreams.

Yet, we are not to despair. Rather, our marching orders are the same as those given to Hezekiah. That is, we need to take order with our houses. Knowing our limits, knowing our frailty, knowing that even the most glorious goodness we have to offer is never enough to meet the holiness to which God calls us, we might well pause as we begin our Lent as wonder how well ordered our house is, our private life as well as our relationship with those whom we love and those who depend on us. Granted that only God's grace will draw us from the best of human love to a share in his divine life, can we nonetheless say that we are making the best use of our time? Are we, in both our work and in our leisure, in our prayer and in our service, becoming the sort of people who will enjoy for eternity the company of a holy and righteous God?

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