Thursday of the Thirty-third Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If the readings today stir up feelings of anxiety in us, well, that’s to be expected. These are not readings of comfort and peace – anything but! And that’s just how the Lectionary is arranged. Every year at the end of the Church year – which this is – we have readings about how times will end. These readings are called apocalyptic readings, and at the close of a year, it makes sense to read about the close of time.

Generally speaking, apocalyptic readings are written during times of intense persecution in the Church. It makes sense that as persecution increases, the imaginations of those being persecuted would turn toward a time when one’s enemies would be vanquished in a glorious battle, and a new time of grace would come.

But often these apocalyptic readings speak of the persecution itself, and that’s what’s happening in the book of Maccabees, which we have been hearing the last week or so. On Tuesday, old Eleazar would not give in to the unreasonable demands of Antiochus Epiphanes, even though he had been faithful his whole life long. He refused to be a cause of scandal for the young and went to his death. The same happened yesterday to the seven brothers and their mother who were all put to death. Well, today, Mattathias has had enough of all of this, and has seen one too many faithful Jews give up and give in, so he incites a revolution and gives courage to all those being persecuted.

If today these readings stir up more feelings of uneasiness than they have perhaps in the past, well, that’s easy to understand. The apostasy is catching up with us too, in these days. Persecution of Christians and the proliferation of terror and violence seems to be coming to a fever pitch – not just in Paris, or even just in Beirut or Syria, but day after day in our cities.

Understandably, we all wonder how to stay safe and stay out of harm’s way. But the truth is, living our faith is dangerous. Just ask Eleazar or the seven brothers, or Mattathias. It might seem “safe” to give up and give in to society, or even to go into hiding. But the Psalmist knows the only way to real safety and real peace: “Offer to God praise as your sacrifice / and fulfill your vows to the Most High; / Then call upon me in time of distress; / I will rescue you, and you shall glorify me.”

The way to fight this spiritual battle is to find our safety where the only true safety exists: in God alone. Jesus tells us in another place that we ought not to fear those who can merely kill the body, but to fear instead the one who seeks to kill our souls (Matthew 10:28). So we believers put on the armor of faith: good works, fervent prayer, honest confession, reception of the sacraments. And then we trust in the One who alone is trustworthy: our God who gives us the only life worth living.

Thirty-third Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Why are we still here?????

Have you ever thought about that?  Why is it that Jesus has been so long in returning?  Why hasn’t he come back to put all things to their proper conclusion?  Why do we still have wars being fought all over the earth?  Why is there still terror, and death, and sadness, and pain?  Why do our loved ones still suffer illness?  Why do relationships still break down and why do people still hurt one another?  Why can’t God just wrap things up and put an end to all this nonsense?  Why can’t we all go home to be with our Lord and our loved ones?

If you relate to those questions, then you probably can relate to the readings that we have from the prophet Daniel and from Mark’s Gospel today.  These are what we call “apocalyptic writings” which are usually written to give people hope in the midst of very hard times.  So you can see why they would be so important to us today.  Because we have hard times of our own, don’t we?  I would venture to guess that everyone sitting here is either affected in some way by the economic downturn, or else they know someone who is.  Do you know someone whose son or daughter was stationed at Fort Hood?  Judging from the number of funerals we have had here lately, I would say that a lot of you have lost loved ones recently, or know about someone who has.  And that’s to say nothing of the day-to-day stuff like relationships ending, and the darkness of our own sin.

When these things confront us, who among us wouldn’t call to mind the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel?  “The sun will be darkened,” he says, “and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”  It often seems like our whole world is falling apart, and we are desperately looking for some sign of hope.

They are hard readings today, really kind of dark in nature.  They remind me of the darkness of the days that we have at the end of the year.  The sun sets a lot earlier than it did, and the skies are often cloudy.  It’s a darkness we can almost feel, and these readings that we have at the end of our liturgical year really echo that sentiment for me.

But I think that’s the point.  A lot of fundamentalist folks have spent the greater part of their lives trying to figure out when all these things would take place.  They want a day and time when the end will come, and they sometimes tell us they have figured it out, only to have the time come and go, and they have to return to their lives, if they can.  But these readings aren’t supposed to be a roadmap.  They are supposed to accompany us when our lives are as dark as the autumn nights.  The message they give us is one of hope.  No, we will not be spared the disappointments, frustrations, and sadness that can sometimes come in our lives, but we never ever ever have to go through them alone.

God will be with us.  He will, as the Gospel tells us, “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”  As the prophet Daniel tells us, “At that time [God’s] people shall escape, everyone who is found written in the book.”

And so that is why we are here today.  That’s why we are still here.  We are here to allow God to gather his elect, and we are here to help him do that. To that end, we have gathered eight of our brothers and sisters today, to welcome them and support them in their journey to become one of us.  Two of them are now promoted to the Order of Catechumens.  Catechumens are those being instructed in the ways of the faith.  This pertains specifically to those not baptized.  At the Easter Vigil Mass, they will receive all three of the Sacraments of Initiation: baptism, confirmation and first Eucharist.  Catechumens have rights in the Church: they can receive a Christian burial if they are called home before the Sacraments can be administered; they can be married in the Church sacramentally, and they have a right to the sacraments.

The others being welcomed today are candidates for full communion with us.  They have been baptized, some Catholic, some not, and so they already share with us the foundation of grace and are being called to confirmation and first Eucharist to complete their union with us.

If we take the readings today seriously, and I think we should, then these eight people are simply a nice start.  We know that one day, we won’t still be here, that Jesus will return to complete all things and initiate the reign of God’s kingdom.  And we want everyone to be there.  In many ways, we cannot any of us go if we all don’t go.  It’s not just “me and Jesus.”  Salvation is not an individual thing, it’s something we all receive together.  And that’s why we have the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.  That’s why we actively reach out to those not among us and call them to communion with us.  We need to gather up all God’s people so that, one day, we can all be seated around the banquet of God’s people in heaven.

Back to my first question, then.  Why are we still here?  We’re still here because there is work still to be done.  There are many more people to gather from the four winds so that their names can be written in the book of life.  God is still working salvation among us; we need to cooperate with that saving work.  It’s not going to be easy, and some days may seem oppressively dark, but we are never alone.  Heaven and earth might pass away, but God’s word is forever.  It will not pass away.