33rd Sunday of the Year – November 14, 1971 – CNR
St. Luke wrote his Gospel sometime around the year 85; he belonged, then, to the second or third generation of Christians. His writings reflect the wider perspective on the significance of Jesus Christ that the passage of time afforded him. He is the only evangelist to have written a second book, The Acts of the Apostles, telling the story of the journey of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. And in both books, he found it necessary to alter the presentation of the Second Coming of Christ, in order to give positive importance to the time of the Church between Resurrection and Parousia.
Earlier, the Church expected the End to come quickly. What God had begun at Easter and Pentecost would soon be completed with the return of Christ and the full realization of the Kingdom of God. But the mere coming and going of generations of believers, with the End still not in sight, led Luke to reconsider the matter. And the Gospel-reading we heard today is one attempt of his to convince his readers that there was no point in their trying to compute or calculate the exact moment of the coming. He warns that certain men will assume that “wars and insurrections,” “earthquakes, plagues and famines” mean that “the time is at hand.” But, he insists, as he does elsewhere, that man “cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes” (Lk 17:20), for “it is not for you to know about dates and times, which the Father has set within his own control” (Acts 1:7). Even the cataclysmic Fall of Jerusalem, center of the religious life of both Jew and early Christian, is not a sign of the End; man must cease his attempts to bring God’s plan under his rational prediction and control.
The passage of two thousand years of Christian history has indicated the wisdom of Luke’s insight. If anything, we have the inverse problem of not caring about the End at all. But what I would like to draw attention to is what is implicit in Luke’s reinterpretation, namely, that man should not presume to identify his own ideas about the prospects of Christianity with those of God. We have, all of us, a tendency to do that. As the early Christians centered their life in Jerusalem and the hope of a quick return of Christ, so we also build our own cities of hopes and act on certain expectations. We can make too much of them, assume that because they are valuable, they are indispensable to God’s purpose. The history of Jesus and, for that matter, of the Church is the tale of God’s shattering the expectations of man. For life came out of death on a cross; and it is by “patient endurance” that we will save our lives.
What this means is that among the things we must surrender into the Lord’s hands are our own plans, expectations, hopes. We cannot avoid defining ourselves by such projects, but there is needed a poverty of spirit that also is willing to give these up, should God’s purpose require it. These can be hopes for our careers, plans for our lives, treasured expectations. They can be judgements about the character of the Church or of the religious life or of American society. All of them are among the possessions that we must be ready to leave behind in order to follow Jesus Christ. They are, perhaps, of all our possessions the ones least easy to surrender.
Yet, what is this but the confession that God’s ways need not be our ways, nor his thoughts our thoughts. We are the heirs of a wisdom that looks like folly, and the ability to say Yes to God’s will for us, and No to our own, is merely the ability to say that the Cross was not weakness but strength, not folly but wisdom itself.
33rd Sunday of the Year–November 17, 1974–CNR
Each year, as the Church calendar heads towards its end and its new beginning in Advent, we find ourselves confronted by what the scholars call the “eschatological discourses” of the Gospel. Each year they are read out to us in all their strangeness, and we wonder again what this language, stranger even than the quaint biblical descriptions of the beginning of all things, can possibly have to do with us, men and women of the twentieth century.
I suppose there are many ways of attempting an answer. We can speak of the sense of crisis in which the time of Jesus was bathed, of the way in which he focused it around himself, of the intense expectation and desire of the early Church that God quickly complete the work of universal restoration whose first fruits it had witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Or we might wonder to what degree modern man should boast of his progress, or how foreign this symbolism really is. After all, for two weeks the newspapers have been filled with the reports of famine in the world; the last two days have seen the news of “rumors of war” again in the Middle East; and a movie called “Earthquake” just opened yesterday.
I am not suggesting that we are to assume that the End is just around the corner; in fact, that would explicitly contradict the way in which Luke has reported the words of Jesus about the last days. Luke was writing in the second or third generation of the Church’s existence, and he was given to know that the plan of God was not subject to man’s microscopic investigation. The time of the Church was important in God’s eyes, and there would lie ahead of the Church, before the End, a period of witnessing, of persecution, a time for it to be patient.
And it is to this that I wish to draw your attention, to the fact that Luke presents his Church as a community which is hard-pressed and suffering, and tempted to despair. This was no collective paranoia on the community’s part; in fact, it was at the time of Luke’s writing an object of suspicion from Jew and Gentile alike, the Jewish people regarding it as an apostasy, the pagan world as an alien presence, potentially subversive of its order. It stood for something new, and it would not be long before Christians became known as the tertium genus, this strange new, third type of people alongside the familiar distinction between pagan and Jew.
We surely find ourselves at the end of a nearly complete reversal of that situation. So far from being an alien presence in our larger society, we find many, Christians and non-Christians, wondering what concrete difference being a Christian makes from being an American. We are part of the everyday world, part of the “Establishment,” some will say, certainly in no danger of being hard-pressed or suffering, everyone will admit. We are part of the cultural landscape, and we are judged and evaluated precisely as that, for good or for ill, loved or hated, embraced or despised or ignored, not for our distinctiveness, but because we are so undistinctive.
There are exceptions to that description, of course. There are individuals, both to the right and to the left, who insist that it is blasphemy to collapse our being Christians into our being Americans. And perhaps for all of us, there come moments–events, encounters, remarks, questions–that mark out the difference. But, too often these are not permitted to raise the question of principle, of starting-point, center and goal, in which alone is the distinctiveness of our being Christians revealed.
Perhaps this Gospel may serve to do this. The very strangeness of the situation it describes and anticipates may make us ask some of the crucial questions. Why do I come and listen to so strange a tale? Why do I come here for this culturally odd and distinct rite? Why am I here when so many others are not here? What is this all about? The sense of alienation–statistical, if not other–should perhaps be faced directly. The strangeness of our situation can thus become the way into a sense of the otherness of Jesus Christ and of living a life in conscious identification with his message. At some point, if our Christianity is to be adult and personal to each of us, that otherness must be acknowledged, and its implications for our lives explored: what it has to say about how I am living my life now, about the criteria of values I implicitly invoke, about the hierarchy of my values, about my choices for the future, major and minor, about who I am, and who I am to be.
I do not pretend that choosing to be a Christian will mean persecution and hatred; we are considered too harmless for that. I do mean that it alone will give us a distinctive standpoint
from which to look out upon the world, and it will mean that we are in something more than purely historical communion with the Church from which and for which Luke wrote his Gospel, and through that Church and its Gospel, with the Jesus for whose Lordship they lived and died.
33RD SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – NOVEMBER 19, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
On this Sunday, the next to last in the Church year, we are reminded of the “last things,” what the fancy theological word calls “eschatology.” The sections of the Bible that speak of the end of things are among the most difficult to interpret, both because of the strangeness of the biblical language and, perhaps even more, because we moderns tend to regard concern for such matters to be rather bizarre, the sort of things we associate with certain forms of ranting in sermons or with the eccentric message on the sign of a lonely street-prophet. We think even less about such things than a person in the full vigor of life thinks about the prospect of his own death.
And yet speaking about the end may be as important as speaking about the beginning. That, certainly, is the sense of our Creed, which, as it begins with an affirmation that the one God is the Creator of all things, so it ends with an affirmation of the fulfilment of all things in him in the Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. Our life, we say in that profession of faith, is not senseless in its origins and is not senseless–direction-less–in its end. Between these two assurances we struggle to live our lives here and now.
Does this framing of our existence not make sense? Do we not, both as individuals and as communities, live our lives within the framework of our memories and our hopes? Who are we if not people who have been made who they are by the past–by the past of our own experiences from birth on, in our families, our communities, by our educations, our encounters; and back beyond them by the past of our society, culture, and Church, still living in us, in our parents, our grandparents, and ever farther back; and as Christians back also through all the generations of those who believed before us, all the great saints, back to the Apostles and to Jesus Christ? Does not all this history define who we are? At the climactic moment of the celebration for which we are gathered, do we not remember the One who broke bread he called his Body and gave a cup he called his Blood, do we not remember his death and resurrection, and claim once again to be in communion with him?
But we do not only remember him, we say that we look forward to him: “Christ will come again,” says the Eucharistic acclamation. We define ourselves, we humans and we Christians, by what we hope for. Can a life really be lived that has no hope, that looks forward to nothing? “What do you want to do after you graduate?” we ask the college student. “What are your goals?” we might be asked when we apply for a job. “What are your short- and long-term scholarly interests?” we ask at Catholic University when someone applies for a teaching-post. “Do you want to get well?” the psychologist may say to the patient, the counsellor to the alcoholic and the drug-addict, and only if there is an at least faint hope and desire can they do them any good. “Tell me what you hope, and I will tell you who you are,” seems to be the unspoken assumption. We are not only what we remember, but also what we hope.
It is in this orientation towards a future that Christian eschatology inserts itself. The Lord is, as the Psalmist says, not only behind us but before us: calling us on beyond where we are to what we might be, beyond his present gifts to gifts yet to be given and gained. It is a future for us as individuals, in the sure conviction, of which we were reminded last week, that death itself is not our only certain future, that God’s love is surer and stronger than death. But it is a future also for us as a community, indeed as a race, in the Kingdom that is a communion of saints enjoying a communion of holy grace.
As the doctrine of our gracious creation by a loving God should ground our sense of our dignity, so also the doctrine of the fulfilment of all things in God should ground our sense of our destiny. Neither doctrine is supposed to be a flight off into another world than this one that we inhabit in our everyday life. The light of our origins and the splendor of our ends is supposed to illumine the paths we walk today. Where we come from and where we are going should be determining even now who we are. The vision of a possible and certain future should in particular prevent us from being content with what we are, or resigned to what we are. The promise of future resurrection and of an unending life should be a force for conversion even now, for a hope that whatever evils we encounter we can overcome in our individual and social lives. The vision of the sorts of beings that God’s grace can make possible should make us impatient with anything that now falls short of that, falls short of it in our individual lives, falls short of it in the common world we make together in our society and culture. Things need not always be what they have been and are. We are made to be greater than we now are, and we ought to think of our lives not simply as rooted in the past but as destined for a glorious future, and live them in active anticipation and striving for that fulfilment.
This last week of the Church year is for thinking about final things, about finalities, about purposes. God is not done with us yet, and we should not be done with him.
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 18, 2007 – Blessed Sacrament
The readings we hear on these last Sundays of the Church year are extremely difficult to interpret. Fr. Fitzmyer, the great biblical scholar, who taught for years at Catholic University, says that there are almost as many interpretations of them as there are interpreters.
That Jesus claimed that a critical moment for Israel was dawning no one doubts. This was the meaning of his message about the Kingdom of God breaking in. It was primarily an announcement of salvation, however, not a threat of doom, an invitation to receive God’s gift of salvation with joy and to live by its light and power. That there would be some, even many, who were unprepared to accept Jesus’ message is also clear, and many a parable and many a saying of his make the choice clear between entering into the Kingdom and suffering the fate of the Jerusalem temple, which in fact, forty years later, would be levelled to the ground by the Romans.
Today’s readings warn against presuming to know the when and the how of God’s judgment. Every Christian century has had its share of prophets who were sure that they knew which contemporary events matched which biblical predictions and therefore disclosed what would happen next in God’s plan. That they have all proven to be wrong has not prevented people from getting shows on cable TV that claim to do the same for our day and age. In fact, about all we can get from these biblical sayings, even those of Jesus, is the assurance that God has a plan, that the course and the fate of history are in his hands. More than that we do not know, and do not need to know.
However one understands the future-sayings in the Gospel, so difficult to interpret, there is no doubt that Jesus announced that the world as his contemporaries knew it was coming to an end. Not necessarily the physical world, but the world of human life, human relations, human societies, because God’s power was now entering into the shaping of human history with the salvation that Jesus proclaimed and embodied in himself. People would no longer be the same, and not simply as individuals but as communities and societies as well. The way that human beings were to relate to one another was now to be modeled on the way in which God had acted toward them, illustrated in the many parables in which Jesus revealed what God is like and what the life of the Kingdom should be like.
That is a permanently valid revelation, an enduringly urgent call, which today falls upon us. And God knows that there are reasons enough to take it seriously, since very clearly there is much that needs healing and the Gospel’s light in human relationships today, whether we think of our city, of our country, or of relations among nations. Each of us may also ask whether there is not much that needs healing and the Gospel’s light in our own individual lives. Every time we listen to a Gospel passage, Jesus is always announcing a possible new future for us, and inviting us to choose it, and in that sense what he was for his contemporaries he remains for us today, and the challenge that fell upon them then falls upon us now.
Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 14, 2010 – St. John’s
Our Gospel-passage today begins with people expressing wonder at the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. In those days, of course, there were no postcards or photographs at all, and probably very few drawings of the Temple, so that first-time pilgrims to the Holy City would have been struck with awe at the sight. It reminds me of how I felt, although I had seen many photos of it, when I was astonished and thrilled when decades ago I stood before the Taj Mahal, which remains the most beautiful building I have ever seen.
The Temple in Jerusalem which thrilled those people was the third one built on the site. The first one, built by King Solomon, was destroyed in 586 B.C.; the second, built when the Israelites returned from exile seventy years later, was not as grand as Solomon’s had been. Twenty years before the birth of Jesus, King Herod the Great decided to rebuild the Temple, work that was still going on when Jesus walked this earth.
It was indeed a magnificent building. (Here are some reconstructions done by arachaeologists.) A contemporary said that it “lacked nothing that could astound either mind or eye.” Gold covered the gates and much of the outer walls and gleamed so brightly that people had to turn their eyes away from it, as if from the sun. “To approaching strangers it appeared from afar like a snow-clad mountain, for all that was not overlaid with gold was of purest white.” This is the Temple at which the people were exclaiming in awe.
But St. Luke has already prepared his readers for what Jesus says in response. For ten chapters of his Gospel, he has described the slow but determined journey that Jesus and his disciples made toward Jerusalem. That is where the expected climax of his ministry was to take place, his “exodus,” as it is called in St. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration (Lk 9:31). Luke also relates Jesus’ words of grief over the city, and an earlier prediction of disaster: “How often have I wanted to gather your children together as a mother bird collects her young under her wings, and you refused me! Your temple will be abandoned” (Lk 13:34-35). And when he finally reaches the city, he breaks into tears in his sorrow that the city would be destroyed because they had failed “to recognize the time of your visitation” (Lk 19:41-44).
We should not be surprised, then, when Jesus says: “These things at which you are gazing–the day will come when not one stone will be left on another, but it will all be torn down.” That is, of course, what happened forty years after his death and resurrection when in the course of suppressing a rebellion, Roman armies, led by the future emperor Titus, totally destroyed the Temple so that all that was left was the western wall, known also as the “wailing wall.” One of the pillars of Jewish identity at the time, then, was destroyed, with tremendous effect on Judaism, with the synagogue replacing the Temple as the focus of Jewish worship. Six hundred years later, on the Temple Mount, was built the Muslim shrine known as the Golden Dome, and the whole area today is one of the places most sensitive for relations between Jews and Muslims.
There is your history-lesson for the week! What does it have to say to us? St. John’s Gospel reports a saying of Jesus, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2:19). This claim probably played a part in the trial that ended with Jesus’ condemnation to death, because the building of a new temple was associated with the Messiah. St. John says that after the resurrection, the disciples remembered this saying of Jesus, and came to realize that he was speaking of “the temple of his body” that would be raised on the third day. And very soon the first Christians began to use building metaphors, especially Temple-metaphors, to describe themselves, a temple not made of stones, not made by hand. The stone the builders had thrown away as useless God had picked up from the scrapheap and made the cornerstone of his new temple, and as the risen Christ was that living stone so Christians had to allow themselves to be built up “into a spiritual building, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:4-6).
The new Temple, then, the one that Jesus builds every day, is not made of stones, but of living people, men and women who are alive with the life of the Risen Lord. While we come together in physical buildings like this one, around a physical altar, these are not the essential symbols and expressions of our worship. It is we, all of us, who are God’s new Temple in the Spirit; not only that, we, all of us, are the priests of this worship, and the spiritual sacrifices we offer, all of us, are the acts of witness and the acts of love that we perform in the world. If every Christian temple, every church, were to be destroyed, but a believing people remained, the new Temple, the new priesthood, would still exist, and they would be offering God the worship in spirit and in truth that he desires.
The old Temple was destroyed until not a stone remained upon a stone. The new Temple is being built now, stone-by-stone, as people are brought to believe in Christ. St. Augustine developed this theme beautifully in one of his homilies:
What does it mean, “Be built up as living stones”? You are living if you believe, and if you believe, you are being made into the temple of God… Stones are being cut from the mountains by the hands of those who are preaching the truth; they are being squared so that they may enter into the eternal structure.
“Many stones are still in the hands of the builder,” he went on, and he urged them–he urges us–“not to fall from his hands so that they–so that we–can be finished and built into the structure of the temple” that God is building. That is what God is doing with us: shaping us, chiseling us, squaring us, until we resemble Christ, until we can fit smoothly with the cornerstone of God’s holy and eternal Temple.