Today’s Scripture readings speak about the shortness of human life and the importance of repentance and the need to prepare for the life to come. The story is told of a parish priest who tried to make this very point one Sunday morning, and announced to his congregation that: “Everyone in this parish is going to die!” The people shuddered, all except for one man standing at the back who started chuckling. The parish priest then repeated: “Everyone in this parish is going to die!” Again the congregation squirmed, but the same man chuckled even louder. The parish priest said it a third time and once more the man laughed. Frustrated, the priest asked the man why he was laughing. “Father,” he said, “I’m not from this parish!”
Now, let’s be honest. Most of us have a similar attitude towards death. It always happens to someone else, so why worry? Most of us don’t really take death and judgment seriously. Saint Paul recognized that human tendency; and for that reason he spoke directly to the Corinthians and told them point blank that: “Time is running out.” Saint Paul had a great sense of urgency regarding the end of the world and the end of our own lives. I believe we need to recapture some of that realism. And as a help to doing that, I’d like to tell you about a man who had a dramatic experience of time running out.
You have probably heard of the nineteenth century Russian novelist, Feodor Dostoevsky. He wrote The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment and other interesting novels. As a young man, Dostoevsky got involved with a group of soviet subversives who were arrested and imprisoned. One day the prison guards led them out of prison and into the main square of Saint Petersburg. At first they thought they were being released, but when they arrived they saw an execution platform. The officers selected three prisoners, blindfolded them and tied them to posts. Dostoevsky watched in horror as the firing squad loaded their rifles and pointed them at his comrades. He turned to the nervous man standing next to him and even though he knew him to be an atheist, told him to ask God for forgiveness and to be brave. They waited, but the guns didn’t go off. The Tsar had reprieved the condemned men and just wanted to give them a scare.
In his novels Dostoevsky often refers to that experience which had such a profound influence on the remainder of his life. What struck him wasn’t how short a time he had to live, but what he would do with the final five minutes of his life. In his mind he divided the remaining time: one minute to observe his surroundings: to drink in the colours, shapes and sounds; two minutes to think about what he had done with his life, and two minutes to consider what might await him after death. Parcelled out in that way, he considered the time left to be sufficient, even generous.
Saint Paul had something like that in mind when he told the Corinthians that: “Time is running out.” It’s not just that time goes by quickly; everyone knows that, but the real question is: What will you and I do with the time that remains? And that question is so urgent that Saint Paul tells husbands and wives to refrain from the marital embrace. They have something even more vital to attend to.
In reminding people that time is running out, Saint Paul follows Our Lord’s example. In today’s gospel we hear the first words of Our Lord’s public ministry; and they provide the keynote for his subsequent teaching: “The kingdom of heaven is near. Repent and believe in the Gospel.” In just over three weeks you will hear those words again when a priest will mark your forehead with ashes. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return; repent and believe. Lent is just around the corner and will arrive sooner than we think. Time is running out. Now is the time to attend to what matters most: consider where you are at this moment in time and how you got here. Repent, turn away from evil and embrace the Kingdom of God.