With Thanksgiving next week, and the days and weeks that follow, leading up to Christmas Day itself, and with many radio stations across the country switching to 24/7 Christmas music, the season is soon approaching for crowded malls, frustrating attempts at untangling strings of lights that weren’t tangled when you stowed them back in January, and too many slices of pumpkin pie (or if you’re not too keen on pumpkin pie, your sister’s chocolate pecan pie!).
And while I certainly intend in no way to diminish the liturgical season of Advent, whose ripe spiritual fruits often go unpicked, the coming weeks can be a beautiful time as family and friends gather, give thanks to God for all His blessings, and celebrate the Incarnation of Our Lord. They can also bring about sadness as we take note of loved ones who no longer join us around the table. In either case, the coming weeks can often evoke that feeling of nostalgia, that curious sentimental desire to return either in thought or in reality to a former time in one’s life, to one’s homeland, or to a former set of circumstances that are no longer in place; we can often yearn greatly for the happiness of a former time and place, especially if the current realities of our life are unfavorable. The truth of it, as we know, is that we cannot go back. Yet, in the tension that nostalgia can elicit, God extends an invitation; the Lord always meets us in the tension.
In today’s gospel passage, Jesus schools His disciples on the urgent and unexpected nature (to those who are not vigilant) of His Second Coming: As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be in the days of the Son of Man; they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage up to the day that Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Similarly, as it was in the days of Lot: they were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; on the day when Lot left Sodom, fire and brimstone rained from the sky to destroy them all.
Just as the judgment of the Lord entered into the world amidst the normal everyday routines of the people of Noah’s and Lot’s day, so will the fullness of the Kingdom of God at the consummation of time. As the Lord warns, we know neither the day nor the hour, not only of His general coming at the end of the world but also on a more personal level at the moment of our deaths: and so we must live with hearts full of the knowledge that no one lives as his own master, and no one dies as his own master. For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:7-8).
In particular, Jesus calls us to remember the wife of Lot. At the command of his angelic visitors, Lot gathers his family and flees the city of Sodom before its impending destruction. Lot received the command from the angel that they are not to look back as God destroys the city for its grave iniquity. Lot’s wife does not heed the Lord’s command and so is herself destroyed, being turned into a pillar of salt. What motivated her to “look back?” Was it curiosity? Was it to have one last glance at her home? A sense of nostalgia for the friends and familiar times she would be leaving behind?
You and I won’t be physically turned into a pillar of salt for “looking back,” that is, for indulging a sense of nostalgia. However, constantly living in the past won’t do us any good and might as well be the spiritual equivalent of a pillar of salt, both in our relationships with others and the Other: God Himself.
With regard to relationships with others: holding on grudges and past hurts doesn’t bring the offending party healing, and certainly doesn’t bring us healing either, but keeps the wounds foul and festering. Uniting these wounds to the Cross of Christ, asking Him — even begging Him — for the grace to forgive genuinely from the heart is a much better route than the road of anger, resentment, or (God-forbid) hatred.
What about if we’re the offending party? Feelings of guilt, shame, and remorse are useful to elicit personal contrition and so seek other’s forgiveness as well as God’s, not to mention receiving His forgiveness and healing in the confessional. Moreover, a healthy recollection of our past sins can be useful in gratefully recalling God’s abundant mercy towards us, stoking the flames of love for Him in our hearts, and strengthening our wills against falling into the same sins again in the future. Yet, living in past moral failings can be a black hole used by the enemy to suck us into discouragement, doubt God’s mercy, and entangle us in the snare of spiritual and psychological desolation.
In his epistle to the Philippians, Saint Paul references his own struggle to keep his eyes fixed on the upward call of that transformative union with Christ. Paul himself was no stranger to regrets from his past, having been such an ardent persecutor of the first Christians. Yet he made interest, as it were, on the Lord’s mercy, devoting himself to the Gospel message and using the compunction from past sins to propel him onward:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).
Perhaps the circumstances of your life aren’t quite as you had hoped they would be and all you want is to go back to make different decisions than you had: strain forward! Do not doubt God’s power to bring good out of a dire situation: We know that all things work for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
Perhaps there are crosses and trials you never imagined would befall you: Strain forward! Trust that God, in His divine providence, has a plan for you.
It can be very difficult to move through our lives with trust in God’s Providence. The changing of times and places and circumstances can bring with them doubt, fear, and anxiety: Why is God allowing this to happen to me? Where is He leading me? It is in these moments we need to remember the wife of Lot. It is in these moments that our decision to strain forward means all the difference between a pile of useless salt devoid of any flavor and basking in the light of His Face.