“Let your loins be girt, and lamps burning in your hands, and yourselves like men who wait for their lord, when he shall return from the wedding; that when be cometh and knocketh, they may open to him immediately. Blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching.”Luke 12:35-37
This parable may be understood in two ways: preparation for the coming of our Lord on the last day, and preparation for His coming at the particular death of each of us. This latter explanation — which is that of St. Gregory on this Gospel— seems more adapted to our subject: for the expectation of the last day will chiefly regard only those who will then be alive. Our Lord seems to have intended it for the apostles, not for all Christians, although the apostles and their successors were many ages distant from this day. Moreover, many signs will precede the last day that will terrify men, according to the words of our Lord.
But no certain signs will precede the particular death of each person; and such “a coming” is signified by those words which are so frequently cited in Holy Scripture, that the Lord will come like “a thief” — that is, when He is least expected. We will, therefore, briefly explain this parable, understanding by it the preparation for death, which above all things is so absolutely necessary for us.
Our Lord commands us all to observe three things: first, that we must have “our loins girt”; second, that we must have “lamps burning in our hands”; and third, that we must “watch” in expectation of the coming of our Judge, being no less ignorant of when He will come than we are of the coming of thieves.
Girt Your Loins
Let us explain the words “Let your loins be girt.” The literal meaning of these words is that we should be prepared to go forth and meet the Lord when death shall call us to our particular judgment. The comparison of the garments being girt is taken from the custom of Eastern nations that wear long garments: when they are about to go on a journey or walk, they gather up their garments and gird their loins, lest their garments should be in their way.
Now, to have our loins girt signifies two things: first, the virtue of chastity, and second, a readiness to meet our Lord coming to judgment, whether it be the particular or the general judgment.
The holy Fathers St. Basil, St. Augustine, and St. Gregory give the first explanation. And truly, the concupiscence of the flesh, beyond all other passions, greatly hinders us from being ready to meet Christ; while, on the other hand, nothing makes us more fit to follow our Lord than virginal chastity. We read in Revelation how virgins follow the Lamb “wherever He goeth.” And the apostle Paul says, “He that is without a wife is solicitous for the things that belong to the Lord — how he may please God. But he that is with a wife is solicitous for the things of the world — how he may please his wife; and he is divided.”
Another explanation, which does not restrict the girded loins to continence alone, but includes a ready obedience to Christ in all things, is that of St. Cyprian. The meaning, then, of these words is that the affairs of this life — even the most necessary and important — must not so occupy our mind as to hinder us from directing our first thoughts to preparing to meet Christ when He shall call upon us at our death to give an account of all our works and, yes, of all our words and thoughts, even every idle word and frivolous thought.
What of those who are now wholly immersed in worldly cares, and who never think — for one moment — of the account they will have to give to God of all their works, all their words, all their thoughts, all their desires, and all their omissions? What will they do when death suddenly comes upon them? Will these be able to meet Christ, with their loins girt? Rather, will they not, being entangled and bound, fall in their sins into despair?
A Burning Lamp in Hand
But we will now explain another duty of the diligent and faithful servant: to have “lamps burning in your hand.” It is not sufficient for the faithful servant to have his loins girt so that he may freely and easily meet his Lord; a burning lamp is also required to show him the way, because at night he should be expecting the Lord, when He returns from the nuptial banquet. In this place, the lamp signifies the law of God, which points out the right path. David says, “Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” But this lamp cannot illumine or point out the way if it is left in our chamber or house, and therefore we must hold it in our hand, so that it may show us the right way.
Many are well acquainted with divine and human laws, but they commit many sins, or omit many good and necessary works, because they have no lamp in their hands — that is, because their knowledge does not extend to works. How many most learned men there are who commit very grievous sins because, when they act, they do not consult the law of the Lord, but their anger, their lust, or some other passion!
Wherefore, we must always hold the lamp of the law, not hidden in our chamber, but in our hands, and obey those words of the Holy Spirit, who orders us to meditate on the law of the Lord “day and night,” so that with the prophet, we may say, “Thou hast commanded Thy commandments to be kept most diligently. Oh, that my ways may be directed to keep Thy justifications!” He who always keeps before his eyes the lamp of the law will always be ready to meet his Lord whenever He cometh.
The third and last duty of the faithful servant is to “watch,” being uncertain of when the Lord shall come: “Blessed are those servants whom the Lord, when He cometh, shall find watching.”
Divine Providence so disposed things that nothing is more uncertain than the hour of death: some die in the womb, some when scarcely born, some in extreme old age, and some in the flower of youth. Others languish a long time, or die suddenly, or recover from a severe sickness or an almost incurable disease; others are only slightly affected by disease, but when they seem secure from death, the disease comes on again and takes them away. Our Lord alludes to this uncertainty in the Gospel:
“And if he shall come in the second watch, or come in the third watch, and find them watching, blessed are those servants. But know this, that if the householder knew at what hour the thief would come, he would surely watch, and would not suffer his house to be broken open. Be then also ready: for at what hour you think not the Son of Man will come.”
In order that we may be mindful of the uncertainty of the time at which the Lord shall come to judge — whether it be at our death or at the end of the world — nothing is more frequently repeated in the Holy Scriptures than the word watch, and also the comparison of the thief, who comes when he is least expected.
From these considerations, it is evident how great the negligence and ignorance, to say nothing of the blindness and madness, of the greater part of mankind must be. Although so often warned by the very Spirit of truth (who cannot deceive) to prepare for death (that great and most difficult affair, on which eternal happiness or misery depends), few are roused by the words, or rather by the thunder, of the Holy Spirit.
How Do We Watch?
But someone may reply, “What advice do you give to teach us to ‘watch’ as we ought and, by watching, to prepare for a good death?” Nothing more useful occurs to me than for us frequently and seriously to examine our consciences, so that we may prepare for death. All Catholics, when they are about to confess their sins, do not fail to examine their consciences beforehand. In short, there are hardly any Catholics who, when near death, do not confess their sins.
But what shall we say of those who are snatched away by a sudden death? What of those who are afflicted with madness or fall into delirium before Confession? What of those who, being grievously afflicted by their disease, cannot even think of their sins? What of those who sin while dying, or die in sin, as they do who engage in an unjust war or in a duel, or are killed in the act of adultery?
Prudently to avoid these and other like misfortunes, nothing can be imagined more useful than for those who value their salvation to examine their consciences diligently twice every day, morning and night: what they have done during the night or the preceding day; what they have said, desired, or thought of, into which sin may have entered. And if they discover any mortal sin, let them not defer seeking the remedy of true contrition, but resolve to approach the sacrament of Penance at the very first opportunity. Wherefore, let them ask of God the gift of contrition; let them ponder on the enormity of sin; let them detest their sins from their heart, and seriously ask themselves who is the offended and who the offender. Spare not, then, your tears, nor cease to strike your breast. Make a firm resolution nevermore to offend God, nevermore to irritate the best of fathers.
If this examination is continued morning and night, or at least once a day, it can scarcely happen that we shall die in sin, or mad, or delirious. Thus it will be that, every preparation being made for a good death, its uncertainty will not trouble us, nor will the happiness of eternal life fail us.