OUR REDEMPTION IS NEAR
With just one week left to come to the end of the Church’s liturgical calendar, (Year C), and about six weeks to draw the curtains of 2016, the Holy Mother Church in her protective prowess encourages us to patiently hold on till the end. The weapons she places at our disposal to help us triumph include amongst others: Endurance and Hard Work! According to Gautama Siddhartha, (563-483 B.C.), “Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes”. Therefore, we must not give up. Instead, we must continue to endure until we triumph over all the enemies and evil that afflicts us. The Church teaches us today that Christ will come to bring all that is evil to nothing. He continues to strengthen our ability to endure daily through the Eucharist. Hence, the Churchsays to all of us today: Feras, non culpes, quod mutari non potest (you should endure, not blame, what cannot be changed)!
In 1912, a young man named Douglas Mawson got into trouble in the Antarctic, when a member of his three-man sledging team fell into a crevasse with most of their rations. He and the other man, Mertz, were forced to eat their dogs, ingesting toxic levels of vitamin A. Mertz went mad and died; only Mawson made it, driven on by the desire to propose to his girlfriend. Also, during World War II a pilot named William Ash was shot down and sent to a Prisoners’ of War (POW) camp. This place was hell! But after months of agony he managed to escape, and was sheltered by nuns. However, he went mad with fever and walked straight into a Gestapo head quarter. He was skinned, soaked in brine, his fingernails were pulled off, but he still never spoke of, or betrayed the nuns who sheltered him. He knew very well that doing so would land the nuns into trouble and probably cost them their lives. These are true life stories of people who endured till the end.
The Theater is on Fire: The Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, tells the story of a theater where a variety show is proceeding. Each act is more fantastic than the last, and each is applauded by the audience. Suddenly the manager appears on the stage, apologizing for the interruption. He announces at the top of his voice that the theater is on fire, and begs his patrons to leave the theatre immediately, without causing a commotion. The spectators think that it is the most amusing turn of the evening, and cheer thunderously. The manager again feverishly implores them to leave the burning building, and he is again applauded vigorously. At last he can do no more. The fire races through the whole building engulfing the fun-loving audience with it. “And so,” concludes Kierkegaard, “will our age, I sometimes think, go down in fiery destruction to the applause of a crowded house of cheering spectators” (Resource, July/August). Today’s readings warn us about a similar fate if we are not well prepared when the “Day of the Lord” dawns quite unexpectedly, marking the end of the world.
Beware of False Messiahs: In 1978, the whole world was shocked and dismayed by reports from Jonestown, Guyana where the Rev. Jim Jones had led hundreds of people into one of history’s darkest mass-suicides and mass-murders. These were not ignorant, primitive savages in a far-off land. They were American citizens who had fallen under the leadership of a madman. We don’t see many signs nowadays of the Moonies. Their founder Rev. Moon and his Unification Church have faded into the background. At one time he boasted considerable political support. He invested heavily in the elections of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. Rev. Moon built an empire by putting young people out on the streets selling flowers. Moon preached that a new messiah was soon to come. He claimed that new messiah was a man born in Korea in the 20th century. False messiahs are forever with us. We need not even deal with such self-deluded creatures as mass-murderer Charles Manson who gathered a group of seemingly intelligent young adults as his followers. Manson once said, “My philosophy is: ‘Don’t think.’” That is the philosophy subtly expressed by all false messiahs. Don’t think. Reason is the enemy of all fanatics. But false messiahs do come along every once in a while. That is why Jesus warns his followers about false messiahs in today’s Gospel.
In today’s First Reading, Malachi announces the coming of the day of the Lord. He paints two pictures: the fate of the evil doer, and the triumph of the righteous who endures till the end. This short reading simply serves as an encouragement to us to continue our good work in patient righteousness and endurance. In order words, it teaches that to persist in good works till the end, one must endure all forms of trials and difficulties as the saints did because: “All these call for patience, endurance and faithfulness” (Rev 13, 10). Today’s first reading ends with a promise: “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.”This should be our motivator! This healing that the prophet spoke of is the reward for our endurance. Endurance moves a child of God to continue to work hard without looking back. It eschews laziness, and helps us to overcome sloth. It is endurance that helps us persevere in doing good at all times. It keeps us going when physical strength fails us and, it perpetuates our quest for righteousness.
In the Second Reading, Paul encourages us to work hard to earn both our earthly and heavenly living. Good work is a product of endurance; it yields good and enduring fruits as well. Good work makes a good Christian. Therefore one must persevere in it until it begins to yield good fruits. We recognize the fact that there is gross unemployment all over the world and the efforts young people are making to get jobs. Those making these efforts are not in any way lazy. The Church does not in any way encourage laziness of any sort (even though she recognizes Jesus Christ in the poor). This is why one of the seven capital sins according to the church is Sloth (reluctance to work or plain laziness). Thomas Aquinas said: “Sloth is “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good…it is evil in its effect, if it so oppresses man as to draw him away entirely from good deeds” (Summa Theologae 2, 35, ad 1). It is quite unfortunate that some Christians have given up the hope of working hard and can no longer endure hard times which do not last. Instead, they have become “corporate beggars”, thieves, and habitual liars just to attract sympathy from people. Instead of making efforts to lay their hands on something that will keep them going till “the healing sun of God” shines on them, they prefer going begging. What a shame! This is what Paul decries in today’s reading: “Now we hear that some of you are living in idleness, doing no work themselves but interfering with everyone else’s.” A lazy Christian yields easily to all sorts of vices and does not believe in “working out one’s salvation with fear and trembling.” If we are to triumph over the devil, we must work hard and endure the pains of good work.
WE ARE COMING VERY CLOSE to the end of the Church year. In fact, next Sunday, when we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King, is also the 34th and last Sunday of the liturgical year. So, as usual at this time, the Church invites us to think about the final end of things. Our world, in which we spend so much time planning and securing our worldly future, is only temporary. Our own lives in this world will not last forever. The plans we make must always be contingent and conditional and take our final destiny into account.
In today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus in the Temple at Jerusalem. It is quite near the end of his public life. Some of the people around him — perhaps they were visitors from “out of town” [or his disciples, as Matthew and Mark suggest] — were awestruck by the beauty of the stonework and the wealth of offerings being made by pilgrims.
The Temple was one of the most impressive buildings in the world at that time. In fact, the huge structure was not yet quite completed when Jesus was there. To most Jews it was a place made to last forever (just as we feel somehow that St Peter’s in Rome should last forever). It was, so to speak, the “soul” of the Jewish faith, the focal point for all Jews everywhere — just as Rome is for Catholics. The comment of Jesus, then, must have seemed appalling, if not actually blasphemous. “All these things you are gaping open-mouthed at now — the time will come when not a single stone will be left on another: everything will be destroyed.”
End of the Temple
Jesus, of course, was absolutely right. As the result of a rebellion by the Jews against the Romans, Jerusalem was besieged and the city and Temple utterly destroyed. The Holy of Holies, a place so sacred that only the high priest could enter it once a year, was ransacked and the sacred vessels carried off as booty. Today, visitors to Rome can see the event depicted in sculpture on a triumphal arch built by the Emperor Titus to commemorate his victories. All that is left of King Herod’s mighty monument in Jerusalem today is the “Wailing Wall”.
The unthinkable had happened. And, for many Jews, including Jews converted to Christianity, it must have seemed like the end of the world. The early writings of the Christian Testament are very much concerned with what they believed was the imminent end of the world and the return of Christ in judgement. They were wrong, as we know, and even before the Christian Testament was completed later books indicate that the end is not so soon. The emphasis shifted from expectation of an early return of Jesus to focusing on how fruitfully to spend the time of waiting.
Three Kinds of Phenomena
Jesus lists three kinds of phenomena, which might induce people to believe that the end of all things was coming. “Take care not to be deceived,” Jesus warns us today, because many would come using his name and saying, “I am he” – false Messiahs and salvation-gurus – and “The time is near at hand”. Even in our own times, we saw how many people got excited about the year 2000. Jesus’ advice: have nothing to do with such people.
There will be, Jesus warns, many events which will seem like the end but they will not be. “When you hear of wars and revolutions, do not be frightened, for this is something that must happen but the end is not so soon.” Jesus predicts wars between and within nations. “There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines…fearful sights and great signs from heaven…” The last 100 years, not to mention the past decade, has seen a horrifying abundance of such evils and catastrophes. Two World Wars, the Korean, Vietnam and Yugoslavian wars… the deep-rooted ethnic conflicts of Jews and Muslims, of Hindus and Muslims, of Christians and Christians… and now tension in the Middle East and the list can go on and on.
Finally, Jesus speaks of the special threats hanging over his own followers. “People will seize you and persecute you; they will hand you over to the synagogues and to imprisonment, and bring you before kings and governors because of my name…” Many of the early Christians thought that persecution was also a sign of the coming end of the world. Jesus, however, reminds us that it is an integral part of the Church’s ongoing life. And so it has been.
There will always be people who hate the Gospel message, who find it deeply threatening. The Christian is called both to live and to proclaim a set of values and a vision of life that challenges the accepted viewpoints and lifestyles of most societies. If the Church stops experiencing persecution, abuse and criticism, we may well ask how well we are living our Christian lives, how faithful we are to the way of Jesus.
When the Church is attacked, even violently, it is not a sign of the end of things. Nor is it necessarily a sign that the Church has been moving in the wrong direction. Often quite the contrary. Nor is it something that we go out of our way either to avoid or to invite. It is not, Jesus says, something to be anxious about. It is not what those against us may do in the future that matters most but what we are doing here and now to carry out the mandate of Christ.
How to react?
How, then, should we react to today’s readings? On the one hand, we must listen carefully to Jesus’ warnings. There will be an end to things, even those things we feel must last forever. On the other hand, we are not to be panicked into seeing the end even in major catastrophes. St Augustine, who lived in the sixth century, thought that the collapse of the Roman Empire and its culture under the hordes of “barbarians” (today’s Germans, French and Scandinavians), who poured down from the north, must be the end of everything. Much closer to our own time, many thought that Communism in Mao’s China, for instance, had wiped out Christianity and all religion from the country. How wrong they were and how wrong we were!
As long as Christianity remains steadfast to its faith in God, to seeking the truth, to human compassion and justice, it cannot disappear. And it is to these things that we are to bear witness. We may have to do so under painful experiences when we are “betrayed even by parents and brothers, relations and friends…and some will be put to death”. It requires a great inner strength, courage and conviction to put truth, love, justice and solidarity with all above one’s own family and friends and to suffer their betrayal. Yet, Jesus promises, “I myself will give you an eloquence and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to resist or contradict.” These words have been proved true again and again.
Securing our Future
However, for many of us, the problem is not anxiety about the end of our world but living as if there were an eternity of tomorrows. So many of us work so hard to guarantee an ironclad security for ourselves and our families. People are so focused on a future which they are assured they are going to enjoy.
They seem to believe that all they have to do is take the right steps, get the right breaks and have enough money to guarantee the future is under their control. The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are pushed into the background (they are so pessimistic!). Living the Christian life means fitting the Gospel into our chosen lifestyle and our chosen future. That is as foolish as the man in Jesus’ parable who, having got all his wealth together, said, “Relax now, man, and have a really good time.” We know what happened to him. And it happens to people all the time. And it will happen to us. The end of the world that is our universe may be from all the evidence far away. We may be fortunate to live in a society free from wars, ethnic strife, famine and natural disasters, free from religious persecution or discrimination. Yet, there is another end we all have to face and which is totally outside our control: the end of our bodily life here.
Are we ready for that? There is only one effective way to prepare: to live each day fully in the company of Jesus. We do not prepare for the end by guaranteeing our future (we can’t) but by living fully with God and for God at every moment of every day.
We can do this:
—- by personal prayer.
—- by living the message of the Gospel so that it permeates everything we say and do; we become “other Christs” by learning to find Jesus, to love and respond to him in every person, in every place and in every experience of our daily life.
Then, no matter when Jesus comes to take us away, we will be more than ready. We will meet not as strangers but as dear and intimate friends who know each other well.
Today’s Gospel Reading is prophetic in nature and was applied to the days of Jesus. But it is also applicable to us in today’s situation. It invites us to be prepared to receive the Lord worthily without any fear. We are called to persevere in our living faith and look forward in hope.
Not knowing when our individual time will expire is not meant to frighten a person—unless they need to be frightened to live a good life – but it should motivate us to be prepared. It should give us hope in any type of trial; that our time and trial now is temporary, but eternity is forever. Embracing this way of living gives us hope and confidence, that no matter when we have our time expires, our lives are secure. The world and its false securities are passing realities. In the end, the love of God is all that remains. That love is reciprocal; God has loved his human creatures and awaits a loving response. He comes to assist us, making our response possible and helping us to persevere in that loving response until the end. And this is the Good News of today.
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.