Homily for the 33d Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nov. 15, 2009
Daniel 12: 1-3
Mark 13: 24-32
St. Vincent’s Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“It shall be a time unsurpassed in distress…. Your people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book” (Dan 12: 1).
I’m always amused a little bit by the link between the appearance of Michael, the great prince—St. Michael the Archangel, my patron—and “a time unsurpassed in distress.” But Michael appears as a guardian of God’s people, not the cause of the unsurpassed distress but the one who will help God’s people escape the distress and horror of “that time.”
“That time” is vaguely defined, but it’s a cataclysmic period—rather like those disaster movies that come out every so often (one called 2012 is about to hit the theaters). We Scripture readers often associate it with the end of the world, the end of history, the 2d coming of the Messiah and the Last Judgment.
Jesus, too, seems to speak in those terms in today’s gospel. It’s no accident that we read such passages at this time of year. As the days shorten in the Northern Hemisphere, as darkness and gloomy days fall upon us, as temperatures drop, as leaves fall and flowers fade, as various animals go into hibernation—as nature seems to die—the Church has us reflecting for several weeks on the End, the Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, hell. Next week will be the last Sunday of Ordinary Time, the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar, and the feast of Christ the King, “the Son of Man who will come with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) on the Last Day to establish his everlasting reign over his elect and to pass judgment on the wicked, who “shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace” (Dan 12:2). On the following Sunday we shall pass into the Advent season, again reminding ourselves that he who came once in history to save us will come again at history’s end to judge the living and dead.
In many biblical passages, like those we read today, the End is described as terrifying, as horrible. Signs and portents are given that might be read as indications that the end is at hand. In fact, Christians have read those signs and portents for almost 2,000 years and often have interpreted them to mean the 2d Coming of our Savior is at hand. What generation of humanity hasn’t experienced natural disasters, famine, plague, and war? A few days ago I was reading about Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604, and was convinced during his pontificate, a time unsurpassed in terrors (famine, plague, foreign invasions, political and ecclesiastical corruption) that the End was at hand. And aren’t these sorts of horrors magnified by our modern technology —nuclear weapons surely are more terrifying than the crossbow—and by our mass media, which let us all know almost instantly of every tsunami, Ebola outbreak, terrorist bombing?
Those sorts of terrors—the unfortunately “normal” events of human history, many of them the results of human sinfulness, of deliberate human choices—are however only prelude to the terrors of divine judgment, to the Day when Jesus Christ will “trample out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored,” as one of our favorite national hymns puts it. That men and women will be judged, will be held accountable by our Creator on that Last Day, is what the Scriptures are teaching us—not the signs and omens, as such.
How can we avoid the terror of that Day? How can we assure ourselves that our names will be “found written in the book” of God’s people, what the Book of Revelation (passim) calls “the book of life,” so that we “shall escape” the disaster, the distress, the disgrace, and we “shall awake from the dust of the earth to live forever” (Dan 12:2)? The readings, you note, are not about only “unsurpassed distress” and “everlasting horror”—eternal damnation—but also about deliverance and salvation: “The wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament” (12:3). (You have to understand that “wisdom” in the Bible isn’t an intellectual quality; it means obedience to the Law of God.) How can we be sure that we’ll be among those whom St. Michael comes to guard (12:1), that we’ll find ourselves among the elect whom the angels of God “will gather from the four winds,” from every part of the earth (Mark 13:37)?
The Responsorial Psalm provides us with an answer: “I set the Lord ever before me; with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed” (16:5,8). We turn to Jesus Christ our Savior, to the example of his life and to his teaching, and we set this ever before our eyes, before our minds, before our hearts as the model and the basis for our own lives: for our desires, for our decisions, for our words, for our actions. We journey thru life arm in arm with the Lord—“with him at my right hand.” WWJD: what would Jesus do? Insofar as we can know that, we do it: we forgive, we attend to the needs of our neighbors, especially the sick and the poor, we speak the truth, we respect the good name of people we know, we honor marriage between one man and one woman, etc. What we can’t know —how would Jesus vote today in a particular election, exactly what kind of immigration laws would he write, what kind of curriculum would be plan for our schools—those sorts of things we try to figure out and act on as best we can in the light of more general principles in the life and teachings of Jesus. But in all things, Jesus is the standard of our life; we set him ever before us.
And if we’ve set Jesus ever before us, if we’ve always done our best to have him at our right hand, then when he returns in his heavenly glory, when he comes again to judge the living and the dead, we shall not be disturbed. We’ll be part of the welcoming party! You know, the earliest Christians didn’t live in fear of the Lord’s return; they prayed for it: “Come, Lord Jesus!” You read that in the Book of Revelation. If we’ve lived for him, then we shall live with him. No fear, no terror, no everlasting disgrace.
Ah, but we don’t always set Jesus before us. We’ve all sinned, and each of us in his or her own heart knows the awful details. What then? Listen 1st to the verse preceding today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews: “We have been consecrated thru the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (10:10). And then listen to what follows, from the reading we heard a short while ago: “This priest [Jesus] offered one sacrifice for sins…. By one offering [of himself on the altar of the cross] he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated” (10:12,14). He has consecrated us thru his self-offering, a consecration that touches us in the sacraments, and so he takes away our sins, makes us perfect forever—provided only that we turn to him in repentance and commit ourselves to him. Perfection is a lifetime journey: we “are being consecrated” day by day as Christ works in us, as much as we let him do that, as much as we set him ever before us. Have confidence in him, in his mercy, in his forgiveness, and recommit your life to him, to his teachings, to his way of life. Have confidence that he’ll finish the job he started on the cross, which is our salvation.