Redeeming the time: sermon on the twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

“Brethren: See therefore, how you walk circumspectly: not as unwise, but as wise: redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

According to certain commentators on the sacred liturgy, the weeks at the end of the liturgical year symbolise the final period in the history of the world. St Paul writes of the Law of Moses, “Whatever is growing old and becoming obsolete is ready to disappear.” (Cf. Heb 8:13) And we can apply these words to the world itself. The world is growing old and becoming obsolete: it is getting ready to disappear. The world as we know it will disappear on the great day when our Saviour returns to judge the living and the dead.

But these last weeks of the liturgical year can also symbolise the end of our own lives. So they can remind us of the shortness of that life. This is perhaps why we hear today those words of St Paul, writing to the Ephesians: “See how you walk, redeeming the time.” What does that mean, “redeeming the time”? To redeem means to buy back. So, do we have to buy back our own time? Does somebody else own it? 

Imagine if you were to see someone with a large chest of gold coins, which are his to use as he wishes. And then imagine that you saw him take the coins out of the chest, one after the other, and throw them off a cliff into the sea or somewhere else where he would never be able to find it again. We would be very surprised to see anyone act in such an irrational way. We would think that such a person must be mad to squander all those precious coins, one after another. 

But isn’t that, in fact, how many people do behave? Because if that chest stands for a human life, and the coins themselves represent all the days contained in that life, don’t many people — or even most people — just run through their days, one after another, throwing them away as it were, not using any of them to buy a reward that will last? One day follows another, each of them a mixture of pleasure and pain, until at last (and sooner than they thought) the box is empty.

This is why St Paul bids us to “redeem the time”. He means, “Wake up, and understand what your days are for!” Perhaps the greatest privilege that we have on earth is that we are able by each one of our free actions to merit a reward from God. If we are in a state of grace, then every act that we perform for love of God will merit an increase of grace, and therefore an increase also of glory in heaven. But notice that this privilege, of being able to merit, is something that belongs to us only whilst we are still in this life. The holy souls in purgatory cannot do this. They cannot merit any more. They are in the state that Christ refers to in the gospel, when He says, “The night comes, when no man can work.” The holy souls are being purified by God, they are being prepared for heaven, but they are not meriting anything new by their purification. The degree of glory that they will enjoy in heaven is already fixed; it was fixed at the moment of their death, by the amount of love that they had for God at the hour when they passed out of this world. 

That is what gives time its greatest value and explains why St Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorist order, made a perpetual vow never to waste any time. He understood that time is man’s most precious possession: time is given to us by God in order to purchase God.

Now, I don’t say that we should all copy St Alphonsus literally. A vow is always a serious matter, and a vow like the one which he took, never to waste a minute of time, should probably not be taken except by someone who is already rather advanced in the Christian life, and after seeking advice from a spiritual father. Yet even without copying him literally, we can learn from his example. One thing we can do to redeem our time, to buy it back as it were from our own careless selves, is to frame for ourselves a rule of life.

By following a rule of life, I mean having some general plan about what we mean to do, for our spiritual life, in a typical day, a typical week, and a typical month, and not departing from that plan except for some good reason. You can find a very useful rule of life, for example, in St Francis de Sales’ work, Introduction to a Devout Life. Apart from some pieces of advice that you might have expected, such as to get up at a fixed hour each morning, to say the Rosary each day, to examine your conscience at the end of each day, there are other pieces of advice that are more unusual. He writes:

“Select one day each month to prepare yourself for death, and on that day perform each duty as faithfully as if it were to be the last day of your life. … Reflect on what might trouble you at that hour, and practise the acts made by the dying, accepting the time, the place, and the kind of the death God wishes you to die.” 

Of course, following a rule of life does not mean that we are to do nothing but pray and work. Even the strictest religious orders set aside times for recreation. But the wisdom of having such a rule comes from this fact, that our human nature is always rather inclined to softness and to sloth, as well as to curiosity. Today we have ways of distracting ourselves, of using up our precious moments, of which St Francis de Sales could not have dreamed. And yet, as I once heard someone say, “No one is going to think to themselves on their deathbed, ‘I wish I’d spent more time on the internet.’”

So then, we are not like those people in the gospel today of whom Jesus says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” No, we believe already without asking to see signs that our life here below, is a preparation for heaven, that we are invited to grow in union each day with the Blessed Trinity, and that we will do this if we make a wise use of those 24 hours that our heavenly Father lavishes upon us each day. As our Lord said to the Jews just before His Passion, “Yet a little while the light is with you; walk while you have the light.”