The liturgical year takes us on a journey from the birth of Jesus in Nazareth to the eternal reign of Christ as King over all of renewed Creation. So the beginning of the liturgical year is the first week of Advent, as we begin preparing ourselves to receive the infant prince of peace. And the end of the liturgical year, which is next week, is the Feast of Christ the King. So our readings today, like the last few weeks, focus on the end.
We remember that the inspired word of God operates and communicates on multiple levels. And sometimes it is challenging to figure out the multiple levels. Jesus here is actually answering two questions at the same time: What will happen at the end time of the Temple? and What will happen at the end time of the world? For Jewish listeners, it makes perfect sense that these two questions (and answers) would be interwoven. The Jews would’ve seen the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem as an event having cosmic significance. The Holy City of Jerusalem, and the Temple in particular, were not just images of the true, heavenly Jerusalem and Temple, but also participated in the reality of Eden, the primordial garden of Creation. Prophecies of the New Jerusalem and the new Eden occur together in the writings of the Prophets. The Temple was decorated exteriorly with images of the cosmos, with stars and other heavenly bodies; and it was decorated interiorly with images of nature, trees and fruit. Thus, the Temple was a representation of the universe (a microcosm), and the universe was a great sanctuary (a macrotemple). So Jesus is at the same time talking about the destruction of these two realities.
And it’s important, because there are two things in this reading that people point to in their denial of the divinity of Jesus.
Jesus describes the destruction as preceded by a time of great tribulation, the sun and moon being darkened, the stars falling, and the earth being shaken. Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” And people today will point to that and say, “Well, here we are, the world is still here, time is still going, Jesus was clearly wrong, therefore Jesus isn’t divine.” If we look through the Old Testament, the language of tribulation and even cosmic upheaval are used in describing political turmoil, of the destruction of a great city or empire: Egypt, Babylon, Jerusalem. What did happen during the lifetime of those Jesus spoke to directly? Forty years after Jesus’ Ascension, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple, and millions of Jews were slaughtered. So Jesus was not wrong in his prophecy: in this, he wasn’t talking about the destruction of the world, but of the Temple and the holy city, which came to pass just as he had said.
So what about the greater destruction, that of the world? Jesus says, “And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels… But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” And here, also, people today will point to and say, “How can Jesus be claiming to be God, if the Father knows when the world will end, but he, Jesus, the Son, doesn’t know? Aren’t the Father and the Son one in mind, will, and being?”
I had to do a lot of reading and thinking to formulate my response to this challenge. Some scholars said that Jesus did know, but it was not for us to know, so he just said he didn’t know. To me, that sounds like they’re saying he lied, and that didn’t work for me, because Jesus never sinned. So building on what I found: Jesus is the perfect unity of his divine and his human nature. As the eternal Son of God, he was in perfect unity with the Father. But in his human nature, the scriptures say he advanced in wisdom, and in favor with God and men. As a child, he learned to speak, he learned to read and write, he learned the Scriptures and Tradition of his people. As man, living in time, he learned things. His intellect, his wisdom, his will, were perfect, but in his humanity, the quality of his knowledge was perfectly true, but the quantity of his knowledge was not perfectly exhaustive. He could not know in his humanity, in his human brain, all that he knew in his divinity. There is an infinite amount he knows as God. But he could not know all that as man. What God willed himself to know as man had to be focused on what he came to do, and to reveal to us, for our salvation. The plan for the end of the world was not for him in his earthly mission as man to reveal, so it was not provided to him to know, as man. I’m of course speaking on the edges of the mystery of Jesus’ interior nature, which is not fully revealed to us. So hopefully that solves the puzzle of this verse, without error or compromising our faith in Jesus’ divinity. Jesus did not know, he did not lie, and yet he is the human and divine Son of God. Both/And.
For a fuller treatment of this idea, I highly recommend this article by Catholic author and speaker, Jimmy Akin.
Per Brant Pitre: Jesus gives an image of the fig tree. Once the branches become tender and they start to put forth new growth, like green leaves in the late spring, you can tell that summer is near. So also when you see these things taking place—tribulation, wars, rumors of wars, all this suffering and distress—know that he is near, at the very gates… Now it’s unfortunate that the lectionary reading ends at this point because Jesus gives a second parable right after this: the parable is of a master who goes away, leaves his servants in charge of his house, and then is going to come back to the house at an unexpected hour when the servants don’t know and the servants aren’t ready for it. So the fig tree image emphasizes that you should know and you should be ready, whereas the master and servant parable emphasizes that you don’t know and you won’t be ready if you don’t keep awake or watch… So in short, Jesus here is talking about two events: the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world. One of them will happen within a generation, and you should be able to tell when it’s coming. The other one is going to happen at a time and a day when no one knows, and so we need to always be ready.
In this parallel story of the destruction of the Temple and of the world, we are also given the theme that new life—renewal—requires enduring suffering. The turmoil of the crucifixion was necessary before the glory of the resurrection. The destruction of the Temple gave way to the true Temple, the body of Christ, the Church. The turmoil of the end of time will pass into the Eschaton, the New Jerusalem, the new heavens and new earth, the manifestation of the Kingdom of God, where the Son of David–son of God and son of Mary–will reign, and his kingdom will have no end.
Before we go to the first reading, I just want to make a quick comment about our second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews. Our reading tells us, “Every priest stands daily at his ministry, offering… those same sacrifices that can never take away sins. But [Christ] offered one sacrifice for sins, and took his seat forever at the right hand of God… For by one offering he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated. Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer offering for sin.” Remember that the author of this letter is trying to encourage Jewish Christians, who might feel pulled back to their Jewish traditions, that Christianity fulfills what Judaism promises. The priests of the Old Covenant offered oblations (that is, bread sacrifices) and sacrificial lambs, as the prefigurement of the sacrifice of the true Lamb of God, the true bread of the new covenant. This sacrifice was offered by Christ in the giving of himself for our forgiveness. We don’t re-sacrifice Christ in the celebration of the Mass! We re-enter into that single, sufficient event of the Paschal Mystery of Christ, which he himself told us to do, throughout time, in memory of him. The priests of the New Covenant are priests in the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ—priests in the order of Melchizedek—offering bread and wine to the Most High God, which become his body and blood, the bread of life and the chalice of salvation, given for the forgiveness of sin.
So, where did the image of the turmoil and tribulation that would accompany the cosmic destruction in our gospel reading come from? From the writings of the prophets. Our first reading today is taken from Daniel: “At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress…” Here we have the first scriptural mention of St. Michael the Archangel, the great prince and guardian of the people of God. The Church, as the new Israel, the New Covenant people of God, has a long history of devotion to St. Michael.
In 1886, after receiving communion during Mass, Pope Leo XIII was given to mystically overhear a conversation between Satan, who said he would destroy the Church if given enough power and time, and the voice of God, who permits Satan to choose a single century in which to work his worst against the Church; he chose the 20th century, and God privately revealed the then-future events of the 20th century to Pope Leo. Pope Leo then composed and added the Saint Michael Prayer to the celebration of the Mass, to ask his intercession for the protection of the Church and her people, built on this Old Testament image of Michael as the prince and protector of the People of God.
The practice of offering this prayer with the Mass ended in 1964, arguably right before the decades in the 20th century that the Church would need it most. But with recent events and situations in the Church as they are (much of which is the fruit of what happened in the decades after the St. Michael prayer was dropped!), many individual parishes, even in our diocese, have been reintroducing the prayer. After a number of requests from the faithful of the parish, and after talking with the diocesan director of liturgy, who offers this prayer in the Cathedral parish, I have decided that we in our parish will be offering this prayer, also. Beginning next week, we will have prayer cards in the pews, and extras available to take home.
It’s sometimes tempting to get worked up about the end of the world: what will happen and when, is this it now? But we can also say, “Where has the year gone? How can it be so close to the end already?” The readings encourage us to count time carefully, to be aware of its passage, to meditate on our mortality and the passing of all things, and to think soberly of the end and the final judgment. Jesus, and the Church following his example, gives us the best guidance: always be ready, always be at work doing the Father’s will. We might not be the generation who will see the end of the world, but we will definitely see the end of our life, and come possibly without any warning before the great judge, before whom we will be called to give an account of our stewardship of his truth, love, and blessings during our time here in this world. Let us always be ready, because the end may always be near.