Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Prov. 31:10-23, 1 Thess. 5:1-6, Mt. 24:36, 25:14-30
I think it would be presumptuous for a monk to give a homily on the ideal wife as described in Proverbs, or to speculate about when the Day of the Lord will come as described by St. Paul in Thessalonians. For I know as little about the time of the Lord’s second coming as I do about women. So I’m going to head for the safer ground of the Gospel parable about investing money wisely, a good topic for our times. Mark Twain once said that November is the most dangerous month to make investments, and the other most dangerous months are December to October. In today’s parable of the talents one of the master’s servants felt the same way. Why bother taking a risk? Bury the gold talent. Give it back when the master returns. If the other two servants lose money he will look really good by comparison, having preserved all of the principal. Well, as it turns out, they double their investments, and he ends up with zero profits. After making excuses and calling his master a hard man, he is promptly fired and cast out to wail and grind his teeth with other slothful losers. The master calls him a wicked and lazy servant. Is that right? Can he really be called wicked for burying his talent? Is what he did so bad?
Parables are like detective stories. They challenge us to search for clues about what the Lord is revealing. Could it be that a gold talent represents a natural skill or ability with which we are gifted? Was the lazy servant wicked because he failed to make good use of his special talent? Like the college student who was a genius with a photographic memory. He didn’t have to apply himself, so he grew lazy, and wasted his time playing poker and drinking every night with his fellow students. A week before exams he memorized his textbooks and always passed. Professors lamented his laziness and the bad influence he had on other students. But he laughed at their rebukes and challenged them to ask a question he couldn’t answer. One of the professors took up the challenge saying, “Okay, I will ask you one question at the oral exam. If you answer it correctly you pass, if not you fail.” The smug, self-confident genius agreed. At the exam next day the professor asked, “What is the name of the person who cleans your dormitory?” The genius flunked and was expelled.
Or, is this parable about something more than earthly things, than the way we use our natural talents, great or small? The Storyteller gives us three clues. First, he tell us, “This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.” Parables are about heavenly things. Second, the Storyteller says all this gold belongs to the Master. The talents are his, not ours. And third, he tells us these gold pieces are talents. In the ancient world a talent was not a natural skill or ability. A talent was a unit of weight, over a hundred pounds. These are not just gold coins. They are very heavy bars of gold bullion having extraordinary value. This is a parable about the riches of the kingdom of heaven. The Master who possesses such great wealth is extremely rich. In fact, no one is richer, for what belongs to God is of infinite value: the Holy Spirit, God’s Love and grace. We are coming close to understanding what the servant did that was so wicked.
Even the smallest measure of grace, one heavenly gold talent, infinitely exceeds the natural abilities of the greatest genius. Every grace we receive from our Lord is a deeper union with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, inspiring us to perfect love. That’s the heavenly gold talent buried by the wicked servant. He dug a hole and put the Spirit there. He covered it over with self-love and stamped on it with the loud noise of his own thoughts so that he would not hear the voice of Love inspiring him. He was not willing to risk going broke by investing God’s Love within his heart for the good of others. The third servant buried the Holy Spirit, he tried to silence God. That was very wicked!
In his classic book, “The Four Loves,” C. S. Lewis writes, “Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to be sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to a pet. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safely in the casket of your selfishness. It will then become unbreakable, impenetrable, unredeemable. The only place outside of heaven where your heart can be safe from all the dangers of love is hell.” Yes, to bury God’s love is wicked. As the Storyteller narrates in another parable: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not minister to you? Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.“
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32]
We began this liturgical year on the First Sunday of Advent with the five verses from Mark 13 that follow today's reading. Chapter 13 of Mark thus forms bookends for the lessons given over this past year. The first words Jesus says in Mark's account are, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” In other words, let the gospel affect us; let it affect the way we live, the way we understand life. Most of all, let the good news affect what we pay attention to. Vigilance was the theme of Mark 13 last Advent; it continues today with a warning to read the signs and that interior turmoil will result if we let things of this world affect us more than the kingdom of God we have learned of over the past year. In short, we are being told to take the gospel seriously.
Getting serious is the idea behind St. Benedict's first degree of humility: become aware of what sin is; flee forgetfulness of God by remembering judgment. Do this by being constantly mindful of God's presence. Jesus and Benedict are calling us to get morally serious.
What we are to be constantly mindful of is what Fr. Robert Barron calls the most fundamental spiritual truth: GOD DOES NOT NEED YOU. As the most fundamental truth, that is the starting point of humility. As the starting point of humility, that is the first thing we need to know about the art of being human. Being human is being grateful and dependent. God gratuitously loved us into existence and maintains us in existence. That is the first thing we need to know about what matters most.
We find it impossible to accept such gratuitousness, such lack of proportion between favor and desert. It wounds our pride. We are certain that we must first “get it together” by our own effort. That is why we are people who worry a lot. That is why we are afraid. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “We're all in the same boat…and we're all sea-sick.” Fear is the root of all sin. It is forgetfulness of God's gratuitous favor to us. It is a lack of trust and gratitude. Thus, Benedict begins his program for learning perfect love not by rooting out fear, but by converting it. Fear of the ultimate, of One Thing, can greatly diminish fear of many lesser things. Fear goads us to self-protection; that's where we get serious! Fear of the Lord keeps us mindful of what matters most and of our vulnerability. Taking these seriously makes us open to further degrees of humility. In the second degree we realize that we cannot continue a life based on unsatisfied demands. In the third we become willing to accept guidance from outside ourselves. When I was a young university student in Iowa City a popular song advised, “You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.” I never dreamed then that the code would be the Rule of St. Benedict.
We experience a conversion when we take that code seriously and let it affect us. We find that code shows us how to live in constant mindfulness of the fundamental truth that “God does not need you,” but created you out of pure love anyway. As we grow in our response to that love and in gratitude for it, our reciprocal love will drive out fear. St. Bernard states it best: “I owe everything for having been created, what can I add for being re-made and being remade in this way? … I owe myself twice over. What can I give God in return for Himself?” The answer is simple: On that to which everything is owed, everything must be spent.
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thess 5:1-6; Mt. 25:14-30 ]
One of our primary ways of knowing things is by contrast. We know hot by experiencing cold; we know wet by experiencing dry. Today’s gospel gives us a number of contrasts. For example, it contrasts perceptions of generosity vs. harshness; and joy compared to darkness. Two of the more striking contrasts are those of goodness and faithfulness with wickedness and the contrast between effort with laziness.
Stewardship—taking care of something which belongs to another—is the example of goodness and faithfulness. Stewardship is a measure of sound spiritual and psychological health. It is shown in our capacity to care more about the good of others than about our own and the trust that others will care sufficiently about our good. Thus, stewardship is a form of love.
Wickedness is caused by an imbalance in our natural human motives. This is illustrated by the three servants and how they handled the Master’s trust. Because of the Master-servant relationship, all three had to deal with some measure of envy and pride. Envy and pride, when combined with humility and love, enabled the first two servants to seek and accomplish their master’s good. Imagine a dear friend or relative who tells you she is going on a trip to an exotic location, one you could never afford. When love and humility combine with envy and pride, you can say, “How I envy you!” and no ill-will is meant. You take pride and delight in helping her prepare for the trip. When love and humility are absent, raw envy and pride poison one’s interior life. Relationships are destroyed.
The notion of “sufficiency” about our own good connects stewardship and wickedness.
Both stewardship and wickedness involve a sense of lack. Envy asks, “Do I have enough goods relative to others?” Pride asks, “Am I valued enough relative to others?” The good stewards have “enough” and so can seek the good of others. At the heart of wickedness is the desire to have and to secure more relative to others.
The absence of love is striking, though it should not surprise us. The wicked servant is also described as “lazy” or “slothful.” Sloth is resistance to the demands of love; it is sadness that the good takes effort. In monastic life we often call it “acedia.” Acedia is half-heartedness about living for higher purposes, like selfless love. One becomes saddened by the enormity of his vocation. He is saddened by what should be a source of joy: greater intimacy with God, or, in our Gospel, with the Master.
The wicked servant blames his sense of lack on the Master, whom he describes as “demanding.” God is love; Love is demanding of us. As we noted at the beginning, stewardship is a form of love and love requires us to care more about the good of others than about our own and to trust that others will care sufficiently about our good. That is a demanding stance to take. But we must take a stand!
Jesus is not a spinner of yarns. The story he tells His listeners demands of them to take a stand. “Taking a stand” calls for critical self-reflection; the wicked are unable to reflect this way. As a result they are not balanced by sympathy for others nor bound by self-control. They do not look beyond self for the power to meet loves demands.
At the root of wickedness is bitterness about its sense of lack. Acknowledgement of our lack of self-sufficiency can be made with bitterness or with humility, but it must be made. Jesus, throughout the Gospels, shows us that our sense of lack is genuine and purposeful. The first four beatitudes are about those who lack; the next four are about those who supply the lack. It is before the truth of the beatitudes that this parable calls us to take a stand.
Everything each of us needs to meet the demands of love, to see the others good as being one’s own is supplied by Jesus Christ. Only slothfulness or acedia poses obstacles. Acedia is the enemy of spiritual joy. We overcome the obstacle of acedia by patience and perseverance, that is, faithfulness and stability, both of which call us to love something greater than self. And if we are patient and persevering, we will discover the joy that is born of charity. Like the good stewards, love will move us to take action; action will lead to union with what is loved. And with that union we will enter into the master’s joy.
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32]
Brother Leo, a monk whom I lived with for a while at Holy Spirit Abbey, was a short, stocky, powerfully built little guy who had a reputation as a very difficult monk. Leo was angry a lot, and one thing I remember him being especially angry about, was that one of the other monks had been granted permission to raise bunny rabbits in a little shed on the monastery property; something Leo thought was silly, and rather precious; not at all a legitimate work project for someone calling himself a “Trappist“. Leo couldn’t stand having those bunny rabbits around, and so, the story goes, one bitterly cold winter night when the rabbit hutch accidentally caught fire, (Bro. Vincent who raised them had crammed the wood burning stove so full trying to keep the bunnies warm, that it actually exploded), poor Bro. Vincent, ran shouting and weeping into the middle of the flames snatching up all the bunnies he could, and was throwing them free of the fire, while Bro. Leo standing by was catching the bunny rabbits in mid air and throwing them back into the flames with a bulldozer idling a few steps away, all set to level the rabbit hutch as soon as the fire was put out.
Experience taught us who lived with him, that it was best not to cross Bro. Leo—that is until one morning, on our way to work in the old wooden monastery when we crossed brother Leo lying face down in the middle of the sidewalk where he had died very suddenly of a heart attack on his way to Vigils. A few days after his funeral, Leo appeared to Bro. Mark in a dream. His face was stained with tears; he looked subdued and rather sad, as he said in a whimpery, broken little voice, full of astonishment: “Mark! They won’t let me do what I want here!”
I believe the reason Bro. Leo looked so changed; so crestfallen and humbled is because he was standing before the face of Christ. He could see Christ, and he knew Christ could see him. He knew there was nothing in him; nothing in the long course of his life in this world that was hidden from the eyes of the Lord, and he could see those luminous eyes of love directed at him, and looking right through him.
It is this same Lord of tenderness, brothers and sisters; the Lord whose eyes see everything we are and everything we ever did who is addressing us in this morning’s gospel. This morning, Jesus is calling each one of us here to himself even as he called Bro. Leo, but, unlike Bro. Leo, we have life remaining to us in which to prepare ourselves for our final encounter with the Lord. And so, Jesus speaks to us this morning, not about the end, but about the beginning of the end, and not in order to scare us, but because He has a dream for us; Jesus dreams of us living forever in joy and at peace in the presence of the Father, who created us for glory and to glorify Him with our song of gladness.
The “end” that Jesus is calling our attention to, is not primarily the ceasing of life as we know and love it in this world; it is that “end” or purpose for which we were created; that “end” which will be for each of us a face to face, personal encounter with God who is love and who created us out of nothing. This is an encounter you want to know is coming and be prepared for. It is coming and may be arriving sooner than you think. When this moment is very near, Jesus says, you will be shown signs. God will not surprise you. You will be alerted to his approaching. “The sun will be darkened; the moon will shed no light; stars will fall out of the sky.” “It doesn’t look like the sun is going out or the stars are falling”, you might say to yourself, ” . . . he must still be a way off.” But what exactly are these signs Jesus is talking about?
What Jesus is describing is the lights of this world going out; of sun and moon and stars being extinguished, not to have you look up at the sky, but to have you look deep into your own heart. It is within, that you will see signs: that you will watch the sun and the moon darkened and the stars falling out of the sky. Maybe those signs are appearing to you already.
Do you find yourself confounded by all that is going on in the world? Are you bewildered by the new technology; the manic randomness of communication on the “blogosphere” where no one reflects much about what he’s saying, and everyone talks at once? Are you baffled trying to understand the habits, opinions, and behavior of young people these days? Does the debate about Health Care Reform seem so complicated and so ferocious that you’re not even sure what side you’re on? You are seeing the sun darken and the moon failing to shed its light. You are beginning to realize there is no light coming from this world that can make sense of this world. Those lights by which this world tries to make itself bright are all going out—and that is a sign, brothers and sisters. It is a sign that you are drawing nearer an encounter with the One who called you to Himself in the beginning.
Our Catholic tradition affirms the possibility that the love God has for each of us is so relentless that even for Bro. Leo, it might not be too late. There is a mysterious way in which a human soul, even after death may continue to be called, purified, and prepared for intimate friendship with God. So broad; so ardent is God’s embrace that it stretches out even beyond the grave gathering Bro. Leo and all of us back to God who says to us this morning: Be attentive to the signs I am showing you: “Do you see the fig tree sprouting new leaves? It is a sign that summer is near.“
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Prov 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thess 5:1-6; Mt 25:14-30]
An eighth grader walking home from school read a sign in a store window: “Help wanted.” He went in and applied for the job. The owner asked, “What can you do?” The lad said, “I can do what I’m told.” “You’re hired,” the owner replied. At first he was given small tasks that the boy did well. Then he was entrusted with greater ones until years later the owner gave charge of his store to the young adult who could do what he was told and help make the business profitable.
Commerce hasn’t change in thousands of years. Good managers are entrusted with more, poor managers lose what they have and are fired. In Aesop’s fables, five hundred years before Jesus told about the slave who buried a gold talent, we hear a similar story: “Once there was a miser who buried his gold in the ground. Day after day he went to inspect and count his treasure. But it happened that one of his workmen, seeing where he buried the gold, dug it up and stole it. When the miser returned and found the hole empty, he began to lament and tear out his hair. A neighbor, hearing him wailing and overcome with grief, after learning the cause, said: “Do not grieve like this. Go put a large stone in the hole, and treat it as if it were gold. It will fulfill the same purpose. For when the gold was there, it was no better than a stone, because you did not use it.”
The rich man in Jesus’ parable of the talents was not a miser. He could have buried his gold in the ground himself if all he wanted was to hide and count his treasure. Instead, he entrusted eight gold talents among three chosen slaves. This is no ordinary rich man. He is a Bill Gates of ancient history, a man of tremendous wealth. A single gold talent was an eighty pound bar of gold bullion, worth fifteen to twenty years of hard earned wages, and he entrusted his slaves with eight times that amount, not counting what he took with him on his long journey. This is a story of enormous wealth, of extraordinary investments. Nor were these ordinary slaves. Such a prosperous man would have summer homes and winter homes, and residences in foreign lands. He needed many, maybe dozens of servants. From them all he chose three according to their abilities to manage and increase his wealth. They did not ask for this huge responsibility, and at least one of them did not want it, but it was given to them, they received the talents. Could they do what they were told? Would they be good managers? Two of them doubled their master’s huge wealth of gold, an astonishing accomplishment!
But the third one, the reluctant slave who buried his master’s trust made excuses for the good he did not do. “I was afraid,” he said, “so I hid your talent in the ground.” Fear can be a strong motivator to do good when better motives are lacking, but this slave was not really motivated by fear. It was his excuse, his self-justification for doing nothing. His master saw through this deception and uncovered his real motivation saying, “You lazy and wicked slave.” He was too slothful even to invest the money with bankers and earn interest. So, like all poor managers, he was fired.
Today that slave might have good reason to be excused for what he did. Huge investment banks have failed. Credit is extremely tight. Recently a businessman asked to talk with a bank officer about a very large loan. The banker said, “That’s great, how much can you lend us?”
But this slave did nothing. He was not only fired from his position as an investment manager, he was also cast into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Suddenly we are confronted with more than temporal consequences. Salvation itself is at stake here, eternal life or death. Because this parable is not about money. It is about grace.
The master is God whose treasures exceed our wildest dreams. The parable begins with divine extravagance, entrusting us with talents of infinite value, a great outpouring of grace. The first of eight divine talents is the Holy Spirit, received by every baptized person. The other seven are the sacraments. No earthly wealth can compare with these treasures that we are given to manage in Baptism, the Eucharist, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Matrimony, Ordination and Anointing of the Sick. Can we do what we are told? Will we be good managers of what God entrusts us with in these sacraments?
Then parable takes us to the end of time when Jesus returns to reward good managers and to cast out the bad who bury God’s treasures in the groundwho are baptized without a willingness to receive Confirmation and the Eucharist, who marry without an openness to conceiving new life, who are ordained without a willingness to proclaim God’s Word, who sin without confessing, and who are seriously ill without wanting the help of Anointing.
A mother knocked on her son’s bedroom door and said, “It’s time to get up for Mass.” He replied, “I’m not going.” She responded, “Oh, and just why aren’t you going?” He said, “For two reasons. First, I’m tired, I want to sleep in; and second, it’s just so boring.” His mother replied, “I’ll give you two reasons why you’re going to Church. First, you’re 51 years old, and second, you’re the pastor.”
The reluctant slave who didn’t want the talent was still held to account for the treasure he buried. He was fired and cast out forever. But Jesus’ parable has a much brighter side. The managers who did what they were told doubled their Master’s wealth. Jesus has not left us alone. He gives us the Holy Spirit to help us with these seven talents, so that by overcoming sloth and other evils, God’s grace in the world will increase astonishingly, and when Jesus returns he will say, “Well done, good and trustworthy servants, …. enter into the joy of your Master.”
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Mal 3:19-20a; 2 Thess 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19]
One way I like to reflect upon the mystery of life and death is to study great works of art made by mortal human beings. All human beings die, but there are inspired artists who refuse to go gently into that good night and, in their art, struggle mightily with the ultimate question of the meaning of human life and death. This mortal battle between the artist and death is waged with particular intensity in that classical depiction of the human body in its natural statethe nude.
About six centuries before Christ, Greek artists take up in earnest the challenge of creating an image of the perfect human body; an image that will immortalize the physical beauty of a human being; carved in stone so as to defy the ravages of time; of disease, old age and death. These very first attempts at depicting ideal human beauty have met with mixed reviews and, to most people today, the statues look like smiling robots. During the next century however, the contours of these robots begin to soften; the modeling of their figures becoming more supple and naturalistic, and then, quite suddenly in about the year 480 B.C. there appears for the first time in history, an image of the perfect human body. It is not known who carved this statue which is known today as the “Kritios Boy.” But it is generally acknowledged to be the first truly beautiful representation of the human body in art. It was an achievement that inaugurated a movement in art
obsessed with the human body, that would assume something of the intensity and devotion of a new religion where gods were worshipped in the temples of perfectly beautiful human bodies.
There is something about the Greek’s veneration of the body that is, perhaps not so surprising after all. St. Paul, would later teach that the human body is a temple; a temple in which dwells God’s Holy Spirit; and that we should reverence our bodies and the bodies of others as sacred places. The disciples in today’s gospel marvel at how beautifully the temple in Jerusalem is adorned, and yet as Jesus taught, and as Paul will later affirm, the temple in Jerusalem is only a reflection of that one most holy and beautiful of all temples: the human body. It is interesting to reflect that long before Paul taught this, it was intuited and proclaimed by the Greeks.
And yet, there is a problem here. These surpassingly beautiful statues the Greeks produced which we have all seen in history books; these same incarnations of ideal physical beauty; have been a source of consternation and confusion for generations of art students down through the ages. Every serious art student, in fact, will experience a crisis at the point where, having signed up for his first life drawing class, he is asked to make a beautiful drawing of a nude on the basis of an actual nude model standing in front of him. Looking at an actual human body, the student shortly discovers all sorts of odd discolorations, moles, pouches and wrinkles that are not particularly beautiful and which he can’t remember ever having seen in any Greek statue. Disheartened, he concludes, at last, that the human body is not actually beautiful at all; that, in fact, those Greek sculptors must have had to work very, very hard for many long years to make the human body appear beautiful in those wonderful statues.
It is a real crisis for an art studentsomething like that experienced by the disciples in this morning’s gospel. One can almost imagine Jesus speaking to an art student about those beautiful Greek statues and saying to him: “You marvel at the beauty of the human body idealized in these great works of art, but the truth is, this temple of the body, made to appear so beautiful by inspired artists, is destined to collapse and collapse so completely that when it has fallen, you will not find one stone on top of another.”
Brothers and sisters, our bodies can be idealized in works of art of impeccable beauty, but no artist can change the course of human destiny in which our bodies will succumb to suffering, disease, old age, and death. In this sense, we might understand Jesus’ teaching about the temple to his disciples as referring to our human bodies: “Tear down this temple“, Jesus says, on another occasion, “and in three days I will raise it up.” He was talking about his body. In his teaching, Jesus discloses to us an insight the Greeks never understood or even imagined: that the true and lasting beauty of the human body is realized neither in nature nor in art so long as we inhabit this world. The ideal beauty the Greeks sought is not to be found in this earthly body of ours, but in the resurrected body; the body that has suffered; that is scarred by the experience of passing through this world of woe; a body which has at last succumbed to accidents of nature; to disease, and feebleness, old age, and death, and which by God’s ineffable grace has been raised up again as a spiritual body. Now, a spiritual body is still a bodymake no mistake about that. Jesus, risen from the dead said to Thomas: “Put your hands into my wounds and see I am NOT a ghost“. Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and so will you and I be, but the resurrected bodyis a glorified body; as different from this mortal body as is a full grown tree from a seed, and a glorified body is a perfect body.
The ideal human body, then, is not found in a fifth century Greek athlete, but in the body of our risen Savior wounded and bleeding from the terrible ordeal he suffered in this world; a body worn out from years spent treading the dusty roads of Palestine; disfigured by the shameful, tortured death he endured; and made glorious having been raised from the dead and seated at God’s right hand.
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-14,18; Mark 13:24-32]
July 2006 became another hurting historical segment for Israel and Lebanon as the Israeli Defense Force and the Lebanon-based Hezbollah guerillas exchanged missiles and fires ending in hundreds of thousands of casualties mainly among the innocent Lebanese citizens, a couple of thousands from the Israeli citizens and a considerable number of victims on both warring parties. Southern Lebanon suffered major destruction of properties from the bombings by Israeli forces, just as missiles from the Hezbollah fighters hit northern Israel, as far south as Haifa. “Hell from Heavens” was how one magazine article described the Iranian-built missiles used by the Hezbollah fighters. “The End of the World is coming” was how some Lebanese elders thought of the month-long war of apocalyptic proportions.
Wars, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and floods can be easily thought of as signs preceding the end of the world. They could be of small or worldwide impact but they always signal that a part or the whole world already ends. This is also how the sacred writings, especially on the eschatological events, describe or predict the inevitable fearful events.
Both readings from the book of Daniel and the gospel of Mark this Sunday take the war invasion scenes as points of departure to indicate the end of the world. These dreadful events portray the onslaught of destruction of the world surrounding mankind and the demise of individuals. The author of Daniel depicts the vision of the Hellenistic wars leading to the defeat of the cruel Antiochus IV Epiphanes who persecuted the Jews. Jesus foresaw the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple upon the attacks of the Roman forces in 70 A.D. . Not only would there be fighting and division among nations, but the split among family members is inevitable. Amidst a seemingly desperate setting, false messiahs announcing illusory hopes would appear proclaiming their message of gloom and doom. Indeed, such is a time for repentance and conversion to the Lord. But for the Lord’s disciple, the byword is “Be Watchful!” . The end may just be the beginning of a new revelation.
The book of Daniel presents a hopeful message amidst the advent of doom. The wicked Antiochus comes and conquers the Jews. Their world is passing away as these mighty evil forces triumph. However, the prophet affirms that succor from the heavens is coming. Who could still afford to defeat the divine forces? Michael, the great prince, guardian of the people (whose name means, “he who is like God“), the archangel would render divine judgment. He will arise, and all peoples will go to their respective final destiny. The wicked shall live in “everlasting horror and disgrace” . This reminds us of the “goats” or the ones on the left of the Eternal Judge who will go to their eternal punishment . They will also arise but for their condemnation . On the other hand, salvation is meant for the just ones, those whose names are written in the book (of life) . They shall shine brightly, like the splendor of the firmament or the stars of the heavens. To the faithful Jews whom fear envelops at such critical times, this prophecy of Daniel promises hope and new life.
Indeed, hope and life, and not fear and death, is what Jesus in his eschatological discourse announces to his listeners. By taking up the earlier prophecies on the apocalyptic eventsand that of Daniel on the Son of Man , Jesus reveals himself as “the Son of Man” who comes in glory and power. The destruction of the old world gives way to the birth of a new world and life. Jesus the Christ and Lord will act in God’s name to inaugurate the final creation, the dawn of new heavens and a new earth .
There are times when waking up from a catnap or nightmarish sleep, I feel myself at a loss, disoriented as to the time and place where I amuntil I fully awaken to the reality around me. Coming out of the nightmares, I thank God I am still alive. But exiting from a fantasy world, how I wish the heavenly glimpse would continueor at least, it would fully happen someday! This is, more or less, our experience of the coming end-days. There is a feeling and experience of ambivalence because the end is a transition to a fuller revelation of the realities of our faith.
Waking up from sleep, we conclude the previous day or night and we begin a new one. When the end of the world comes, we are sure to face a new world. Jesus speaks of natural catastrophes and wars on this day of tribulation. The prophet Daniel says that those who sleep in the dust of the earth (that is, the dead) will awake. A transcendent world is set before them. There is the world of horror and disgrace for the wicked ones. But a world of splendor and light is meant for the just ones . However, from a passing world where the rule of the evil one seemed to have prevailed, there is the birth of the eternal world where the Son of Man directs his angels to gather all the elect into the domain of God .
To hear of destructions and calamities, fear overcomes us. We fear the loss of hard-earned fruits of our labor. We fear the passing away of our loved ones. We fear for the loss of our own lives. Yet everything that is of this world inevitably passes away . Before we fall into total desperation, the Lord at once tells us of a new world, a new birth, and a new lifein God. Jesus takes the example of a fig-tree. When it undergoes changes on the leaves and branches, a new season sets in. We may be in difficult times with all the tribulations and persecutions that we may experience, but all these forebode a new climate, a change of season. More than fear, we now experience hope and joy. The end of one phase gives way to a new beginning.
As the liturgical year is concluding, the Church leads our gaze beyond our present difficulties and fears into the transformation of our world. The word of God speaks of the definitive changes and the signs to detect their appearances. We are sure of this great reality. We are moving into the world of God in its fullness. Soon our curiosity is pricked, just like the disciples, as we might begin to ask when these things will happen. The Lord at once reminds us that it is only the Father who knows the definite timetable. We know what would happen, but we remain uncertain when these would take place. There is no need to fear; instead, we must be hopefulas we grow in trust in the Lord. He desires us to be with him till the end. What we need to do now is to be ready and prepared always. It may happen soon or later. By being vigilant, we can live life more fully and happily because we know that the Lord is already with us, taking us with him, as we tag along at his right hand.
Thirty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Mal 3: 19-20a; 2Thes 3: 7-12; Lk 2: 5-19.]
To talk about the beginnings and the endings of our life experiences is a common enough practice. Because it is so familiar we can overlook the fact that an end is the beginning of something new and a beginning requires the end of something old. Our reactions often depend on which aspect of the process we concentrate on. If we see what is happening as an end, our reaction may be sadness and nostalgia. If it is the end of an unpleasant situation the reaction may be relief. We may approach the new with a feeling of optimistic expectation, or our reaction may be anxiety. To the extent that we have an intuitive awareness that we are experiencing both a beginning and an end our reaction will probably be a combination of both positive and negative feelings. What we experience seems to be a fundamental rhythm of human life, namely that life comes from death. Beginning with birth we “die” to the womb in order to enter life. We have to leave childhood behind to become an adult. In order to move on to a new reality we have to let go of the old.
This basic rhythm is also true of our religious experience. In baptism we died with Christ in order to enter into a new way of life. Growth in the spiritual life is an ongoing process of leaving behind the old self and putting on a new self. The seasons of the liturgical year follow
this fundamental rhythm of human life. We are approaching the end of the liturgical year which leads into Advent, the beginning of a new liturgical cycle. The readings of the liturgy at this time of the year make us more aware of the end, but they are also preparing us for a new beginning.
In this morning’s gospel Jesus predicts the destruction of the temple. We may see the destruction of the temple simply as an unfortunate event in the history of the Jewish people. Jesus’ disciples had a different perspective. The temple was the center of their religious and national life. It was the sign of God’s presence among them and a sign of hope for deliverance for an oppressed people. Jesus’ words are harsh: Not a stone will be left on top of a stone. And this is not all. There will be wars and insurrections, famines and plagues, frightening signs in the heavens and the disruption of family life and friendships. This is more than the destruction of a building; it is the dying of a way of life. Yet the prophet Malachi says that this will be both a time of destruction and a time of healing. In the gospel of Matthew Jesus says that all these occurrences are the beginning of birth pangs. Does this say anything to us today?
What about our cherished ideas and hopes for the Church or our community or parish? Here too the birth of the new comes from the dying of the old. Even at their best our cherished ideas are temporary. We have been called to be Christ’s disciples and to continue Christ’s mission in the world in which we live. That world is always changing. The passing of what we value is painful and sorrow is to be expected. Can we also see our experience as the birth of something new? If I understand St. Paul correctly, the appropriate response is neither giving up nor anxious activity. We are to fulfill our responsibilities trusting in God’s care for us. No matter what the times or the situation in which we live we are called to put the gospel into practice. Jesus’ admonition to perseverance is as valid for us today as it was for his disciples.