(See the readings for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Nov. 17)
“Lo, the day is coming … says the Lord.” Throughout history there have been different movements that hear these words and ask “when.” One such movement was called “The Order of the Star of the East.” The group claimed to know the time of the Lord’s return. In 1925 they erected an amphitheater in Sydney, Australia at the cost of 20,000 pounds. People gathered there expected the Messiah to walk across the Pacific Ocean and arrive. Needless to say, this did not happen as they expected. In 1929 the group dissolved, the amphitheater was razed and there now stands a set of apartments in its place.
Sadly a lot of people get mislead into a false hope by these types of movements. One of the main problems with these movements is the misinterpretation of Scriptures. Jesus tells us that the day of the Lord will come but he does not tell us “when.” Jesus uses apocalyptic images and dramatic descriptions to convey a message of hope. The use of this type of language occurs in some of the prophetic writings, in some of the New Testament letters and the Book of Revelation, perhaps the writing that we are most familiar with from this genre. The use of this type of literature is to engender hope in a people who are oppressed.
Jesus speaks to his disciples knowing some of the difficulties they will face due to the fact that they are disciples. They will face persecution and rejection. They will struggle against injustice and evil. They will be subject to trials and tribulations. Jesus speaks words of encouragement to these disciples. In the end, the Son of Man (judge of all humanity) will come and bring justice to all peoples. The world will be transformed and evil will be wiped away.
When Jesus speaks in these terms he is speaking of the Second Coming. That coming is sometime in the future. He does not tell His disciples the time and place. At one point during the public ministry, he even says: “But of that day [The Day of the Lord] or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
He continues with the admonition: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” In other words keep vigilant, or “keep a vigil.” We use this term when celebrating a Mass in the evening before Sunday or on a great solemnity (for example Easter or Christmas). What we do in the evening is to await and anticipate the arrival of the day. In former days when armies would be camped waiting for battle, the soldiers would keep vigilant not knowing when the enemy would attack. The vigilance helped them be in a state of readiness or preparedness.
Jesus speaks of a similar theme in the Gospel passage for this Sunday’s Mass. When reading the passage we quickly realize that when the disciples ask Jesus “when will this happen?” (speaking of the Day of the Lord), he does not answer with a specific time or date. After the description including tribulations, sufferings, trials, natural disasters, famines, and plagues, he says: “You will be hated by all because of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The theme of the passage is two-fold. First, the Lord will deliver his people from such turmoil because He is the Lord. He has the power to deliver and, in the end, He will deliver justice to those who are oppressed by whatever evil confronts them. This theme echo’s that of the first reading from Malachi who says: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” Second, Jesus urges us to be faithful and to persevere in the midst of the struggles. He acknowledges that there will be struggles in life whether they are natural such as sickness or disease, famine or plagues; whether they are product of mankind such as war or insurrections; or whether they are related to the faith such as persecutions or trials. Yet the power of God will be with the faithful to offer “wisdom in speaking” and protection from harm.
The theme applies not just to the “end times” or the “Day of the Lord.” Every day there are people in the world who face the challenges mentioned in the Gospel; so too the faithful of Jesus Christ. This is not to say our lives are lives of drudgery. Rather we experience the joy of life and the struggles for life as one common experience of living. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council captured this reality in the opening words of the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). The Fathers wrote:
“The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the men of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community composed of men. United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for every man. That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with mankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.”
Jesus urges us to faithfulness every day. He is more powerful than any of the forces or situations that may cause us pain and He will be our strength. While He will come again at the end of time, He remains with us now. Thus Jesus urges his disciples, both past and present, to persevere. He tells us to remain faithful in the midst of the struggles of life and we will find life; to remain focused on the good and we will not be overrun by the bad; to “remain in my [His] love” (John 15:8) and we will know love.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.
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