Sunday, November 14, 2010

Living untl the End

“Not a hair on your head will be destroyed” [Luke 21:19]. I’m not so sure whether I am supposed to be encouraged or discouraged by this particular prediction of Jesus!

Of course, Jesus’ message in today’s gospel is not about hair at all, but about time. As anyone who’s ever tried to juggle a busy schedule knows, time is the great controller of our lives – if anything even more so now, with the advent of that great contemporary curse, multi-tasking.

In the 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch and claimed it was the most liberating moment of his life. Well, most of us don’t have that luxury. We live in a world determined by time. Deadlines dominate our lives. Clocks control our activities, which is why we have that great 19th-century invention the Time Zone. Years ago, when I was serving at our Paulist parish in Toronto, Canada, I became very conscious of being in a country with 4½ time zones from listening to the radio announcer say: “It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes – and 10:30 in Newfoundland.” Out there in the mid-Atlantic, half-way to Ireland, Newfoundland’s time-zone even inspired a cartoon, which showed a man with a sign which said, in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below, in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”

Well, sooner or later, Christ will come, that awesome dies irae, “day of wrath,”when, as we say in the Creed, Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." Exactly when he will come, however, is not so certain, despite what the person in that cartoon may have thought and despite what many Christians throughout history may have thought – going all the way back to those 1st-century Thessalonian Christians whom St. Paul wrote to [2 Thessaonians 3:7-12].

Many of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about the prospect of Christ’s coming again that they were eagerly expecting his arrival any day – or even may have thought that he had already returned and that the kingdom had already come. So, they figured, normal, routine stuff – like working for a living – didn’t matter any more. It was Paul’s task to tell them they had gotten it wrong and should go back to work. Paul’s practical advice was to stay focused in the present, which is, of course, where we actually are at any given time. Even more, the present is, in fact, what connects Christ’s 1st coming (soon to be commemorated again at Christmas) and his final return (for which we claim, at least, to be waiting – as we say every day at Mass – in joyful hope).

For the same reason, Jesus in today’s Gospel wanted his disciples to understand that Jerusalem’s impending destruction in the Roman-Jewish War would not signal the end of the world. In retrospect, of course, that all seems eminently obvious to us, but it was evidently much less obvious in the 1st century. That was, after all the age of the pax romana, when (as we say in the “Christmas Proclamation” from the Roman Martyrology) “all the world was at peace.” Thanks to the Romans' military conquest of the entire Mediterranean world, that part of the world was in fact enjoying one of history’s rare periods of peace. Israel, under Roman rule, was also relatively peaceful in Jesus’ time. But that would change a few decades later in the catastrophic blunder of the Jewish Revolt that would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It was only natural to see such a calamity as some sort of portent of even greater woes to come.

Jesus’ words were addressed to all centuries: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” As with the pax romana, calm, peaceful, untroubled times have generally been the exception in human history. Hardly any era has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. Certainly the past 96 years have been among the bloodiest in all of human history! Yet, however strong our desire to control time by ascribing special significance to our problems and our calamities, Jesus warns us not to mistake them for the end. Such things happen in human history – for ordinary human reasons – and are not necessarily signs of anything else.

In effect, Jesus is telling us that it’s basically not our business to know when the kingdom will come or to worry whether this or that is some sign of its coming. What is our business is to work while we wait – not just the ordinary working for a living to which St. Paul referred, but the work of Christ himself, the work of the kingdom we hope will come and in which we are already citizens – with all of citizenship’s benefits and obligations.

We do the kingdom’s work when we live as disciples of Jesus, even when that leads us into difficulties and opposition, even when it means following Christ’s own path of suffering and rejection. Of course, one can quite easily live a life of carefree cultural conformity, attracting no attention and having no impact. But those who live in no way at odds with the world are constantly being challenged by the Gospel to examine that attitude and rediscover what this faith and hope of ours are all about.

Of course, it is easy to become disillusioned. For sure, there is a lot to be disillusioned about. That’s why it is so important to have a clear vision of our destiny – of God’s kingdom. Far from being signs of the end, our troubles, be they great or small, are calling us to perseverance. Our challenge is precisely to go on believing and hoping and loving even when God seems hidden or absent, when so much seems to get in the way of our experiencing God’s presence in the present.

Ultimately, what this is all about is the fact that, in Jesus, God has given us his Son, the sun of justice [Malachi 3:20], sent to save us - and that, thanks to Jesus, God is near, not far; he is here, not just there. Hence, the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives, and the crises and calamities that characterize our economic and social and political life, far from being obstacles to our experience of God or just distractions on our merry way to the kingdom, are really where God is actually acting and where he can be found (as this season’s Christmas story will again remind us). Meanwhile, like St. Paul, we need to keep focused on the present, getting ready for the final coming of the kingdom by letting it put down roots in us – in who we are becoming by how we live, what we do, and how we do it.

Homily at Imaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 14, 2010.

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