The Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time (Year C)
Psalm 98:5-6, 7-8, 9
2nd Thessalonians 3:7-12
In the Soviet Union, Christians were persecuted for their Faith by the Communist regime. One small group of believers used to meet in a family home every Sunday. They would arrive at different times to avoid suspicion. On one particular Sunday they were all inside, curtains drawn and doors locked, praying, when the door burst open and two armed soldiers stormed in. One shouted, “Everybody up against the wall. If you wish to renounce your faith, you may leave now, and no harm will come to you.” Two people left right away, then a third and fourth. “This is your last chance!” the soldier warned. “Either turn your back on this Jesus of yours or stay and suffer the consequences!” Two more slipped outside, crying and ashamed. No one else moved. They fully expected to be shot, or imprisoned. The soldiers closed the door. One of them said, “We, too, are Christians. We are sorry to have frightened you, but we have learned that unless people are willing to die for their faith, they cannot be fully trusted.” In times of trouble our faith is tested, and we have a chance to do for Christ what he did for us: love him to the end.
Next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the Church year, with the message that all of time and creation points to and is fulfilled in Christ. This Sunday, then, is the last Sunday reading from the Gospel of St. Luke as Jesus travels toward Jerusalem, teaching and healing along the way, as both His spiritual and physical journey have been leading Him to the final conflict, in Jerusalem, between His earthly ministry of grace and mercy, against the powers of corruption, sin, and death.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus takes His disciples to the Temple, and they are marveling at its glorious splendor. And in today’s Gospel we hear, “While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, [Jesus] said, ‘All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.’”
We might remember that Jesus’ threatening of the Temple was one of the charges brought against Him at his trial, and was also a charge against Saint Stephen, the first Christian martyr (cf. Acts 6:13-14).
The people’s response is to ask Jesus, “Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” And the rest of our reading is His answer to the question, which then also goes on another 16 verses past the end of today’s reading.
The first part of his answer in our reading is what will happen to the world, the signs that will indicate the end has come. When Jesus is asked about when the end of the world and final judgment will be, He doesn’t answer with a date and time. He gives signs for us to read by the light of faith, that those who have the eyes to see and heart to understand, those who are attentive to the things of God, will know. But on the other hand, how would we fallen humans live if we knew for sure that He wasn’t going to come back in the next 10 years? We would live like the people in Noah’s time, who weren’t worried about the flood coming. We wouldn’t bother with living holy and virtuously. Or, on the other hand, if we knew He is going to come on a certain date 10 years from now, we would procrastinate living virtuously and holy, and then try to cram it all in at the end, not out of love for God, but looking after ourselves. That’s the opposite of the Christian life. And that’s what many people do now, even not knowing when the end is coming, or perhaps caring enough about their spiritual and eternal life.
Jesus says, there will be signs, but no, I won’t tell you directly. Instead, be ready always. Always live as though judgment might be right around the corner. And that’s what St. Paul says to the Thessalonians in response to their laziness and getting into everyone else’s business: “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living. Brethren, do not be weary in well-doing” (RSV translation). We must always be at work with all our heart and all our might in earnest heartfelt prayer, repentance, and a life devoted to fruitful works of the Spirit. Personally, I have never had much interest in speculating about the end times. Because practically, there’s only a chance that I will be alive to face the trials of the end times and the final judgment. But there’s a certainty that I will face my own end and personal judgment, and that is far more urgent. Because even if the end of the world isn’t coming at any moment, the end of your life might be at any moment. People who die in fatal accidents or other sudden events had no idea that morning they would meet Judgment that day, and we enter eternity with whatever state of our soul at our death. And so, Jesus’ answer is, be wise, observe what’s happening, and always be ready.
The second part of His answer is not just what the world will endure, but what His disciples will endure. “Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name. It will lead to your giving testimony… You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.”
Jesus said all this in response to the question, “When will this happen?” which was asked when Jesus foretold that the Temple would be destroyed.
The Temple was more than just the hub of Jerusalem’s religious life. The Jews saw the architecture of the Temple itself as symbolizing the Heavens and the Earth. The Jewish historian Josephus describes that the bronze pool that was full of water represented the sea. He said that the lamp stand, the menorah in the Temple, represented the lights of the Heavens, the seven planets that you could see in the Heavens. On the Temple Veil, that divided the inner court of the Holy of Holies from the outer court, was woven stars. They actually had the constellations on the veil to symbolize the fact that the veil represented Heaven, whereas beyond the veil represented the Heaven of Heavens. And so the destruction of the Temple was in a mystical sense, a destruction of all of Creation.
And, historically, the Temple WAS destroyed. Not one stone of the temple still stands on the Temple mount (The Western Wall, or “Wailing Wall”, is a retaining wall surrounding part of the mount, the foundation, not the Temple itself. The Islamic Temple Al Masjid Al Aqsa, “The Dome of the Rock” now sits on the Temple Mount). In the year 70, the Romans attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, and millions of Jews, and all the temple priests, died. And with that, Temple-based Judaism and the sacrificial system, ended, and Judaism shifted completely to the synagogue model, with rabbis instead of priests, and scripture study instead of sacrifices. I’ve heard it said that the Catholic Mass is more like the Temple aspect of Judaism (sacrificial liturgies offered by priests), while Protestant Services are more like the synagogue aspect of Judaism (liturgical scripture expositions, led by rabbis). But in any case, Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the Temple, and the signs that preceded it, were fulfilled on the literal, historical level. But also, on the mystical, universal level, we still await the perfect fulfillment of His prophecy with the unfolding events at the final judgment.
We know from the Acts of the Apostles and other early Church documents that Jesus’ prediction of the persecutions of the Church came true as well. Many Christians gave the full witness of their faith in Christ (“witness” in Greek is the word “martyr”). We have the accounts of many of the early martyrs and their heroic testimony. But also, in a fuller sense, the persecution of the Church, and the call to witness to our faith, is an ongoing reality, in some places worse than others, in every age since Christ, and in every age until Christ’s return, with Christ’s prediction that it will be the worst at the end. We, here and now, are called to witness to our faith, to bear fruit in our love, in our words, in our example, and in what we promote and what we oppose as disciples of the truth and love of God in Jesus Christ.
The question being asked by St. Luke’s Christian community was, “Now that many of these things have happened, and we are being persecuted, what should we do?” Our Gospel reading today, and parallels in other parts, especially the book of Revelation, writings in the bible like these about the tribulations of the end times is called “apocalyptic literature.” To quote the homily resource from Fr. Anthony Kadavil…
Early Christian apocalyptic writings were symbolic in nature, giving more an interpretation of events than an actual prediction. One purpose of apocalyptic literature is to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing. A second purpose is to encourage believers to remain faithful through the coming ordeals. A third purpose is to inspire believers to derive all the spiritual good God offers them through life’s inevitable suffering. So the apocalyptic writers encouraged their readers to interpret their sufferings as a sharing in the birth-pangs of the “end.” The believers were assured that if they remained constant in Faith, they could welcome the end of all things and the beginning of eternity with confidence and joy rather than with fear and dread.
St. Luke reminds them of Jesus’ assurance that they were to trust His words against their persecutors and to make use of this opportunity to bear witness to Jesus. This test of Faith was also an opportunity for them to bear witness to Him before the court officials and the public at large. Thus, the persecution would become a massive evangelization campaign. Their Faith would serve as a clear witness on the Day of Judgment. Not only would the individual martyrs see the Lord in Heaven, but the Church would flourish in persecution.
Our responsorial psalm for today continues that theme of hope, rather than fear. “With trumpets and the sound of the horn sing joyfully before the King, the LORD… let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy… Before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth, he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity.” Yes, the Lord is coming, and for many this bodes of the consequences of suffering for their iniquity and unfaithfulness. But for those whom “he has tested in fire and found worthy of himself,” (Wisdom 3:5, 1 Corinthians 3:13), they will share in the inauguration the New Creation, the restoration and recreation of the world, marked by perfect justice, perfect love, perfect joy, the hidden beauty in everything fully revealed. It’s the manifestation of the perfectly ordered Kingdom of God (as I said at the beginning, everything points to its fulfillment in Christ the King, which we celebrate next Sunday).
This exhortation to faithfully persevere in times of widespread suffering is the message of the prophet Malachi in our first reading. Malachi was responding to rampant moral corruption in Israel centuries before Jesus, but this excerpt of his writing fits well with today’s Gospel. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire… But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
My brothers and sisters, as we enter the end of the Church year, meditating on end things, our eternal life, I remind you of the phrase I mentioned last week, “Memento Mori,” Remember death. Let us pour ourselves out in making sure that our spiritual condition is always ready to meet Jesus Christ our generous savior, and merciful judge, not with empty hands because we focused entirely on this temporal world and things that pass away, but with the treasure we have laid up heaven, our deep devotional life, our good works done in love and service toward others, and our profound holiness and love for God above all things.