Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Christians rejoice in endless hope

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

During a month long pastoral posting at a local parish, I was offered a book by a parishioner which had something to do with the “end time” prophecies of a certain seer from Australia. The prophecies warned that the Anti-Christ, the main counter-protagonist of the end-times is already walking among us. Conveniently, the seer, who claimed to have been granted a vision of the Anti-Christ, said that she could not identify him because she was forbidden by God to watch the television. Some of you may already be snickering over such fanciful notions, but we can’t deny that there is a lot of these similar claims these days. Several people, whom I have always regarded as sensible have remarked to me, that it was not a coincidence that lightning struck the Vatican soon after the resignation of Pope Benedict, while some pointed out that Pope Francis conforms to the end times’ prophecies of the medieval Irish monk, Malachi.  Others soberly remarked, that the world in its present state of moral decay certainly conforms to the signs that accompany the End Times predictions in the Bible.

Are these people delusional and overreacting, or are we merely trivialising this whole business of the end times? Today’s gospel sounds rather forbidding, because it is about End Times. But, if you actually listen carefully to what's being said by the Lord today, while He is telling us of dramatic times to come, He is also constantly telling us not to fear them. The context of the gospel passage is Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple which actually took place in the year 70AD. In the eyes of the Jews, the Temple was the axis mundi, God’s earthly residence and a symbol of His continued presence and Providence. Thus it was easy to make the link between the destruction of the Temple and with the end of the world. The crisis had also affected the disciples of the Lord because the Temple also played a commanding role in the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel begins in the Temple with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah, and the Gospel ends with the disciples continually in the Temple praising God. Yet there is a certain irony in this ending as we see in The Acts of the Apostles. The events that followed, like the Ascension and Pentecost, do not happen at the Temple. Peter and John soon find themselves excluded from the Temple. By the time Luke was writing his Gospel and the Acts, the Temple had been destroyed by the Romans.

To boost their morale, St Luke uses the apocalyptic language common at the time about the signs to be expected at the coming of the messianic age. The paradoxical point about apocalyptic language is that it is much more about the present than the future. In spite of the fact, that the world seemed to be collapsing around their heads and they themselves were suffering persecution on all sides, Jesus’ followers are not to feel adrift in a sea of chaos. The Lord would be triumphant and His disciples would prevail against the forces ranged against them. This is because the Lord is always at their side, especially when they are called to speak up for their belief in Him. They are assured that not a hair of their heads will be lost. Their “endurance” will help them through the difficult times and “win (them their) lives”.

Thus, the most valuable contribution that a Christian can make in our age of despair, is to continue to have endurance in faith, to act hopefully and in that way, to be an encouragement to those who have lost all hope. Such enduring faith never loses hope, a faith that is strong enough to contend with the darkness and despair, the wars and rumours of wars that is always around, the natural calamities that can never be avoided or subdued, knowing that ultimately, as the first reading puts it: “the sun of righteousness will shine out with healing in its rays.” It is a call to endure and persevere in prayer, because in prayer we are transformed into more faithful disciples. We must likewise persevere in living the vocation God gives us. We must continue to work at it, day in and day out. Taking our cue from St. Paul in the second reading, we seek not to be a burden, but to bear the burdens of others.

So, do Catholics actually believe in the End Times and the Second Coming of Christ? Yes, absolutely! Each week at Mass, Catholics proclaim together, in reciting the Creed, that Jesus Christ will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” Everyday when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of His Kingdom. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “Before Christ's second coming, the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth, will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception, offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah, come in the flesh.” (675)

The next question may be trickier and we have all wondered from time to time: When will this take place?  When will Christ return? Date-setting is not an option for the followers of Christ. As Jesus said, “But of that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone” (Mk 13:32). But He also warned the disciples to be prepared for His return: “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time is” (Mk 13:33). Anticipation and readiness need not turn into despair, fear or the error of date setting. For Catholics, we are already in the “end times.” The term “end times” actually refers to the last two thousand years. It was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, which ushered in the end times and the last days. In other words, for  Catholics, the “End Times” stretches from the first coming of Christ at Christmas until His return in glory.

So, yes, these are the end times, they’ve always been the end times, and they’re always going to be the end times, until Christ comes again!  The End of time and history might be centuries away, but the end of our lives is always near; each of us will be required to give an account to our Maker. The more important question is: what difference does it make? I mean, I could be run over by a bus tomorrow, and for me, that’s the End Time. The truth is, we all have limited time. For all who are alive today, “the time is near”, just a heartbeat and a single breath away. So, am I going to live my life differently because Christ could return to me tomorrow, or because I could return to him tomorrow? Excessive worry about the time of His return is an unnecessary distraction. The Scriptures tell us to be alert and ready for Christ’s return; not because we should be afraid, but because we should be working on the tasks He’s given us.

Catholics, therefore, do not have a fatalistic or despairing view of the future, but one rooted in hope. Christian hope is no frightful expectation of catastrophes. Far from the action of an angry and vengeful God on the Last Day, judgment is an act of love, spurring man to conversion and holiness. The Final Judgment will bring to completion God’s redemptive, saving work.

Every week, we seem to read about, and see, new levels of evil in our society, and it just keeps getting worse. It is understandable that all these only engender a sense of hopelessness. The Lord counters this gloomy assessment of things with a ray of hope: ‘Your endurance will win you your lives.’ As always, Jesus is pointing ahead to a bright future. Other men see only hopeless ends, but the Christian rejoices in endless hope.

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