Sunday of Week 33 in Ordinary Time (Year C)

Commentary on Malachi 3:19-20, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 and Luke 21:5-19

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, its 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.

Share the load
This, it would seem, is partly the meaning of Paul’s exhortation in the Second Reading today. The letters to the Thessalonians are among the earliest of the New Testament writings, written in the year 50 AD, twenty years before the destruction of the Temple (Luke’s gospel, however, is believed to date from about 85 AD, fifteen years after its destruction).

Paul urges everyone in the community to work and pull their weight, and “not be a burden” on anyone. All are to contribute to the life and sustenance of the community. It seems there were some, who were so convinced that the end was near, that they were just sitting and waiting for the Lord to come and were even urging others to do the same (“doing no work themselves but interfering in everyone else’s”). Such “doomsday” people are present in every generation.

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”. This has occurred even in our own time. 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 most recent decades, has seen a horrifying abundance of such evils and catastrophes.

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.

Persecutions inevitable
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. There are such cataclysmic events in our own time. How wrong they were, and how wrong we are to believe this!

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 on this earth.

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;
  • absorbing the message of the Gospel so much into our way of seeing life that it permeates everything we say and do;
  • becoming “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.

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