November is a strange time of year. Trees have finally lost their leaves, but winter’s snow has not come full force. The holiday bustle is just beginning, and it is a month where we traditionally think about our dead. It is a good time to think about the last things, the end of the world, and our readings are full of images and ideas about the end times.
So let me tell you a story. At the Sun Dance Film Festival there was a screening of a film called, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge.” It is a story of a man about to be hanged. Soldiers march him out to a bridge that crosses Owl Creek. They take a board, and place it so that half of it rests on the bridge, and the other half extends over the edge. Then one of the soldiers stands on the half that rests on the bridge, and the condemned man is made to walk out and stand on the half that extends over the water. The commanding officer barks out the order, the soldier steps off the board, and the condemned man plunges downward with the rope around his neck.
Then something strange happens: the rope breaks, and the condemned man goes plummeting into the river far below. Down, down into the water he sinks, and as he does he is aware that he is alive.
Realizing he has a second chance at life, the man begins to swim down the river. He knows that the soldiers will come to look for him, so that when he is a mile or so down river, he swims under a dense cluster of trees, and waits until the soldiers go by. The sun streams through the branches and he is struck by the beauty of the leaves on the branch, their colors, the pattern of veins in the leaves. Then the man sees a spider spinning a web, and he is struck by the beauty of the web and the tiny drops of water clinging to it like sparkling diamonds. He feels the wetness of the water on his body, he looks up at the blueness of the sky: never has the world looked so wonderful and so magnificent.
The man swims ashore, totally exhausted. He walks through the woods until he comes to a house where the gate swings open mysteriously. The man cannot believe his eyes: it is his house! He is back home, safe, his wife comes running out of the house, arms outstretched to greet him. Just as they embrace, the camera takes us back to Owl Creek Bridge, and we cannot believe our eyes! We see the body of the same man, swinging back and forth, back and forth. The man is dead.
We are left stunned. All the effects of the second chance were pure make-believe. The man had not escaped after all. In the split second, as he fell to his death, he merely imagined that he had gotten a second chance at life. A life he suddenly saw in a different way. A life he suddenly saw through new eyes. For the first time, the man saw the world for what it is, a beautiful place. For the first time, the man saw life for what it is; a precious gift to be shared with those we love. How differently that man would have lived his new life if he had really escaped and had really been given a second chance.
How do you feel at the end of the story? Sad? Disappointed? The author of this story is saying to us, the man in my story is all of us. The condemned man did not get his second chance at life, but we do have a second chance.
The hour will come when you will die, just as that man did. No one knows when that hour will be. Today’s Gospel invites us to reflect on the moment when we will meet Jesus at the end of our lives. It invites us to ask ourselves, how satisfied will we be at that moment with what we have done with our lives? How we have lived them? Unlike the man in the story, we have a second chance to prepare for that hour beginning right now. What will we do with that second chance? Is this too much for a Sunday morning?
We look outside and we see bare trees, and we know that winter will soon follow. This is the time that we Catholics traditionally think about our dead, those who have gone before us. It is also a time to realize that one day, it will be our turn. So use your second chance well, for as scripture tells us, we know not the day, nor the hour.
I would ask you to cast your mind back to the time when Jesus raised his friend, Lazarus, from the grave. Lazarus was a friend of Jesus, and so when he became ill, his sisters sent for Jesus. But He does not come right away, and when He does arrive, Martha runs to meet Him and says to Him, Lord, if You had only been here, my brother would never have died. Jesus tells her, whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. In other words, eternal death is not separation of soul from body, but rather separation of soul from God. And her brother was not separated from his God. This is so important that Jesus asks her, do you believe this? I wonder if she paused before she said yes.
This is not just pious exaggeration, or just something to console us at funerals or during the month of November. These are words from the very mouth of God himself:
I am the resurrection and the life! Whoever believes in me, though they should die, will come to life. And whoever is alive and believes in Me will never die. I leave you with a question: do you believe this?