I had been preparing for some time to preach on the First Sunday of Advent of Year A. Unfortunately, I was drawing a blank on how to present the apocalyptic worldview so strongly presented in the Gospel (Matthew 24:37-44) in a way that might make sense to my hearers. I think except for some exceptions most United States citizens live in world of “business as usual” with only occasional breakthroughs in which the fragility of our world comes to the fore (fear of a nuclear war at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962; the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Shanksville, Pennsylvania on 11 September 2001). So I had been praying with some intensity that God would help me find an appropriate powerful image or story by which to echo the gospel reading.
The Friday and Saturday before the First Sunday of Advent, 2019, I spent with some close friends, grieving the death of Genevieve Szews, the mother of my best priest friend, Fr. George Szews, pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Prescott, WI. On Friday I drove from my home in St. Paul to pick up a mutual friend, Kevin Newell, a trained opera singer currently in studies as an Episcopal seminarian, at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. I then drove the two of us to Prescott, where we and George transferred into a truck driven by Prescott’s mayor, David Hovel, for the journey to Hatley, WI, where the funeral would be held the next day. Knowing that a major winter storm was predicted for Saturday, we left after the graveside service to drive back to Prescott since George was scheduled for the 4 PM Mass. My task was to drive Kevin back to the airport for his flight out that evening.
As the two of us drove up MN highway 61 (unconcerned about the increasingly heavy snow storm since we had successfully been driven through similar conditions for the past three hours), I tried to pass a gas tanker-truck when a sudden gust of wind conjoined with slippery pavement to make my car swerve uncontrollably. After what seemed an eternity of spinning (though it was probably no more than 15-20 seconds) we landed in a ditch, unable to drive back onto the highway.
In those days before the flood, they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day that Noah entered the ark. They did not know until the flood came and carried them all away.
Although I had been slightly concerned about the road conditions, it was not until the instant when I could no longer control my car, when I was caught up in conditions that were not of my making, when I was terrified that the gas tanker-truck or other following vehicles would hit us that I experienced my own apocalyptic dread. Like the people “before the flood” in Jesus’ discourse, something existentially shattering broke into my well-ordered world with both terror and hope. Interestingly, while the swerving was taking place, I didn’t immediately pray that God would save us from maiming or death; I was too focused on simply trying to re-gain control of the car. It was not until about an hour later that the reality of what we had been through hit me with full force.
After we had called 911 to get a tow out of the ditch, the peril in which Kevin and I had been began to sink in. (We also called David-the-mayor to see if he could pick Kevin up so as not to miss his flight and David went out of his way to do so.) It seemed to me completely arbitrary why my car had done a spin-out while others passing by continued on their journeys unscathed. Since I had been sub-consciously continuing to work on my homily, this phrase from the gospel popped into mind:
So will it be at the coming of the Son of Man. Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left.
I felt momentary panic as I considered that, although both Kevin and I might have been killed, infinitely worse was the thought that Kevin might have died because of my actions. I even saw the headlines: “Catholic priest kills Episcopal seminarian in winter spin-out.” Fortunately, neither one of us was even slightly injured and, after the tow, my Toyota Prius was drivable.
In the hours that followed, I was finally able to pray in gratitude to the God-of-rescue: that neither Kevin nor I had been hurt, that I had not caused any other accidents, that the tow-truck and state trooper arrived quite quickly and very efficiently got us out of the ditch. I know that one could interpret the entire experience as simply a demonstration of the laws of physics for bodies in motion, but various events in my life have led me to a deep belief in a God who truly desires human flourishing. Just as at other times in my life, I am left questioning for what actions in this world God has spared me (again).
Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come…. So, too, you must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.
I’m tempted to think that this entire experience was a divine response to my earlier request for help in preparing my homily for the First Sunday of Advent. It certainly got my attention and I hope it did for my hearers at Mass today! I suspect that the experience will have an effect on my future behavior, though at this point I can’t imagine what it might be, except deepening my sense of gratitude. I do know that I will read the Advent readings through a new lens, more attentive to the in-breaking God who comes as mysterium tremendum et fascinans (a mystery at once terrifying and beckoning) to us as individuals and to our world.