Hope in the Encircling Gloom
Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. As the Church looks towards the Day of Judgement, when history comes to an end, Fr Columba Ryan assures us that the true message is one of hope, not of terror.
The liturgical year has certain special seasons: Advent leading up to Christmas and Lent leading to the celebration of Easter, Ascension and Pentecost. In between those special seasons there are two instalments of what may be called the ordinary Sundays of the year. The whole cycle represents the Christian following of our Lord’s life and saving work. And we might think of the two groups of ‘ordinary’ Sundays as representing the humdrum pattern of life, whether our own or Jesus Christ’s between infancy and the final dénouement of Passion, death, resurrection, return to his Father and sending out the Holy Spirit.
Humdrum as these years appear to be they represent the daily trials and testing of Christ’s strength and ours. They speak of the endurance and patience which leads to a perfect work.
We are now almost at the end of the second group of ordinary Sundays — Advent is only a fortnight away! Now the tone of the liturgical readings becomes increasingly urgent. ‘The day is coming,’ says the prophet Malachi?
The day is coming, burning like a furnace. All the arrogant and the evil-doers will be like stubble. The day that is coming is going to burn them up. … But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays. (Mal 3:19-20)
This great day of judgment is a commonplace in the utterance of the prophets. Perhaps it puts us in mind of the men with sandwich boards announcing doom! They shout at us that the Day is Nigh! That is a good enough quote of a biblical phrase, but somehow the context is wrong.
I treasure the story of a lady who encountered one of these men who asked her fiercely ‘Madam, are you saved?’ to which she answered ‘Of course not, my good man, I’m a Roman Catholic!’ By which I hope she meant to convey that there is no such thing as absolute certainty of one’s own salvation, only loving trust in God’s promise, and anyway that this eccentric prophet of gloom had the warning out of context. The ‘Great Day’ holds out not just warning, but extreme encouragement. As the Psalm says
The Lord comes, he comes to rule the earth. He will rule the world with justice, and the peoples with fairness. (Ps 98:9)
Today’s Gospel tells the same story in more concrete terms. We find Jesus with his disciples in the great temple of Jerusalem built by Herod. They admire its magnificence. He tells them, quite simply, the whole splendid edifice will be destroyed, not a stone left upon a stone! That huge human achievement is as flimsy as so much that we do. The battles of men and the sands of time overwhelm our proudest products. You have only to visit the Near East to see how littered it is with the ruins of successive empires, Christian as well as pagan.
Our Lord spells out what will happen.
Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines… Men will seize you … and hand you over … to imprisonment.
The history of the world, and of the Church ever since! But Jesus is no scaremonger. He is not like the man with the sandwich board. ‘Do not be frightened,’ he tells them, ‘for this is something that must happen, but the end is not so soon’. They do not even have to prepare their defence. He will give them eloquence and wisdom: ‘Your endurance will win you your lives.’
Under the pressure of life, it is well to remember this. We do find our lives threatened. As I write this, my brother (and we are no chickens, being in our eighties) lies dangerously ill in hospital. A young man of my acquaintance died suddenly in the midst of giving a concert. A young teenager was carried off to hospital with leukaemia. Life is precarious. There is no use pretending it isn’t.
That is why as the humdrum of our existence is played out, the humdrum represented by these ‘ordinary’ Sundays, our readings grow ever more urgent. But our religious faith assures us we are not alone. God is with us. God is for us.