“Repent for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.”


I remember the day, in fact the exact moment, when I learned to pray – really, really hard.

It was when I was about 12 and my family went for a holiday to France. My father drove the car as far as Dover, we got the ferry to Calais and my mother drove down to Paris – at least that was the plan. And it worked fine until we were about twenty minutes down the big motorway from Calais to Paris.

Now, as everyone knows, the key thing to remember about driving on French roads is that you are meant to drive on the Right rather than the Left, as we do in England. And my mother was very proud of the fact that we had remembered to do just that. So, there we were pootling merrily down this French motorway at night when I noticed four things, one after the other.

The first thing I noticed was that French drivers are very friendly people. Every car that passed, the driver waved at us, every one. ‘That’s really nice,’ I thought. ‘But how do they know that we are newly-arrived visitors?’

The second thing I noticed was that right beside the road that we were on was another road. And this other road was absolutely identical in every respect with the road we were on – same width, same number of lanes, same lights – everything the same – and just going right alongside our road.

And the third thing I noticed was that all the cars on this other road were going in the same direction that we were – and all the cars on our road were going the other way... except us.

The fourth thing I noticed was that my throat had gone very tight and my mouth had gone very dry because I had suddenly realised that we were heading southbound in the fast lane of the northbound carriageway of the Paris to Calais motorway! Which rather helped to explain all the friendly waves we were getting.

It was not a good moment, but there was worse to come.

I pointed out these facts to my mother in what I hoped were a few brief well-chosen words spoken in a calm well-modulated voice well calculated to avoid panic. My father subsequently described it as a strangled yelp. Whatever the historical facts, I needn’t have bothered – panic is what we got. My mother slammed on the brakes, brought the car to a halt and then tried to do a three point turn.

Three point turns were never my mother’s best thing…
So, in no time at all, the car was stalled right across all three lanes of the motorway. And out of the passenger side-window I could see the headlights of a 40-ton truck thundering towards us at speed and now only maybe a hundred yards away. There was no time to do anything more than discover the power of prayer!

And fortunately, the lorry stopped about 6 inches (they might have preferred to describe it as 10 centimetres – and who was I to argue) from the passenger window. My mother got the car going again, we parked up on the hard shoulder and we all had nice a little rest before we went on.

Most often, we are too busy living our lives to have much time to reflect on where we are going. Sometimes it is only when we have a sudden experience of the shortness and fragility of life that we suddenly try to make sense of it all.

That is the baptism of repentance of John – his baptism is not the water of life, but the water of death – the symbol of our smallness and insignificance before the vast power of the whole created universe - unimaginably vast in its infinity. It is the shock of a sudden and unexpected splash of cold water that wakes us from dreams of our own significance.

In the vast expanse of the universe, we are tiny insignificant specks of dust - the nothingness we symbolise on Ash Wednesday. Our lives are eighty or ninety years. Set against the estimated three thousand million years of the existence of this Universe, that is a brief moment. In truth, there is nothing at all intrinsically significant about what we are, who we are, how we live, or why we live. The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy famously described our entire planet in a single word – ‘harmless’. That is the baptism of John – a true felt understanding of just how little, how insignificant, how nothing we really are, if we take seriously what we now know about the scientific reality of the Universe.

But the Baptism that Jesus is the converse of that – it is the relationship we have with God, the Creator and Sustainer of this entire Universe. And it gives us our place in the world, our place in the whole Cosmos – we are the baptised - anointed - children of the Creator God. That is the only credible source of hope in our feeble and passing world – our only reasonable expectation that the little we have and the little we are can actually mean something worthwhile. It is our only claim to fame that we are baptised into Christ; children of God and heirs, like Him – to the kingdom of heaven. Ultimately, it is the only status, dignity, respect, call it what you will, it is the only thing in this world that is actually worth having.

So, in that dignity, let us profess our Faith.

Paul O'Reilly SJ