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.
Today’s Gospel has some rather obvious applications, not all of which are entirely accurate. For example, many may hear this Gospel reading as a condemnation of the rich or a warning against having too much money. Indeed, riches can be a distraction and an obstacle to a relationship with the Lord. Saint Paul says to Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all evil.” (1 Timothy 6:10) But having money is not in and of itself evil; in fact, having money can be an opportunity for holiness if one uses one’s money to build others up. But I really do not think that Jesus was using this opportunity to condemn greed.
Another application of this reading might be to encourage stewardship. Here the idea would be that virtuous stewardship consists of giving sacrificially and not just pledging some of one’s surplus wealth. There’s something to be said for that, because the requirement to be a good steward does include the notion of sacrificial giving, giving from one’s need. In giving from our need, we trust God with our well-being, and he never fails in generosity. So maybe Jesus is calling on us to give more so that he can give more – when we create want in our lives, there is space for God to give more grace.
So in both of these applications, the subject is money and its use. But when it comes down to it, I don’t think Jesus intended money to be the subject here. I think instead, he was focusing on the sacrifice.
Look at what he said the widow did. She put into the treasury a small amount, but it was all she had: Jesus says, “but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, hew whole livelihood.” Not so different from that is the sacrifice of the widow of Zarephath in the first reading. Elijah had prophesied a drought over all of the Land, God’s punishment for the wicked acts of their kings. And so water and food were in scarce supply, and God sends Elijah to the widow. She’s just about to use up the last of her flour and oil to cook a meal for herself and her son, when Elijah meets her and asks her to make him some food. He encourages her to trust God, and when she does by giving all that she has, she finds God faithful to feed all of them for some time.
So I’d like to suggest that both of these widows had gone “all in” for their relationship with God. They trusted Him with their very lives by giving everything had to give. It’s a super-scary thing to do, isn’t it? We are ones who love to be in control of our lives and of our situations, and so giving up all of that gives us more than a little pause. But honestly, it takes that kind of a leap of faith to get into heaven. If we still are grasping onto stuff, then our hands are full, and we cannot receive from God the gifts and the grace he wants to give us.
Look at that cross. That too is going “all in.” And our God did that for us. Jesus went “all in” by giving his life, suffering the pain of death that we might be forgiven of our sins and attain the blessings of heaven. God is faithful and he will not leave us hanging when we go “all in” for him.
And the time is short. The Church gives us this reading very purposely on the third-to-last Sunday of the Church year for a reason. Because if we’re still hanging onto the stuff that keeps us bound to this life, we may very well miss our invitation to eternal life in the kingdom of heaven. To get to heaven, we have to choose our relationship with God over everything else in our lives. We have to empty our hands of all this earthly wealth so that we might obtain heavenly wealth. We have to go “all in” or we’ll be left out.
Today’s Gospel calls us to examine our perspective. Jesus asks, “What man among you having a hundred sheep and losing one of them would not leave the ninety-nine in the desert and go after the lost one until he finds it?” Well, those men he talked to were shepherds, or had shepherds in their family, so they would have responded “nobody would do that!” Why on earth would they risk losing the other ninety-nine sheep to find the lost one?
And as far as the coin goes, I guess it depends on what the coin is worth. If it’s a denarius – a day’s wage – then yes, it would be worth staying up all night and searching carefully. But if it’s just a small coin, why bother? It would probably have cost more to light the lamp and search all night than the coin was worth.
But here’s the perspective part: God is not like us. Every sheep among us is important, and he will relentlessly pursue us individually until he has us all in the sheepfold. And there are those among us who don’t see themselves as worth much. For some, their own self-image is so poor that they think they are dirt. But God does not; and if we’re lost, he’s going to light a lamp and stay up all night until he has us back. For him, one of us is every bit as important as the other ninety-nine. Even if our own self-image is poor, we are a treasure in God’s eyes.
And that’s all well and good, but we always have to ask ourselves why the Church gives us this reading again in the closing days of the Church year. We hear these kinds of parables typically in the summer months, when the Church wants us to see that God loves us and wants us to be his disciples. But hearing the parables in these days, there’s a little more urgency. Time is running short, and it’s time for the lost ones to be found and gathered up and celebrated. These waning days of the Church year are a foreshadowing of the end of time, and so we need to cooperate with God in making the urgent message of God’s love known in every time and place.
And so that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like. It’s a relentless pursuit and a flurry of activity until we are all back where we belong. Once we are all with God, the joyful celebration can continue, knowing that we are all back where we were always meant to be.
Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think, because these readings are just hard to hear. The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening. And even if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience at 7:00 in the morning, I think.
But there is a spiritual principle at work here. We are being called to mindfulness. If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing. God is bringing the whole of creation to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it. We dare not be like those who missed the time of their visitation. We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.
And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us. We must not be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time. We know the time is running short. The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like. The leaves have gone from the trees. The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost; and we’ve even seen more than a few snowflakes. These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment, at least for the meteorological year.
But if the encroaching winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days. Let us not be like Jerusalem; we dare not miss the time of our visitation!
As many times as we may hear the parable in today’s Gospel, I think we always end up scratching our heads and wondering what point Jesus was making, precisely. It’s just so unlike anything we would expect him to preach, this idea of the steward basically cheating his employer and making friends with the customers in order to save his own neck. Even the whole idea of money changing was so foreign to anything that Jesus ever took time to deal with. So the question is, why now? Why does Jesus suddenly have this interest in money, and dishonest wealth at that?
I think the answer to that question is why the Church gives us this Gospel reading, from just past the middle of Luke’s Gospel, right here at what is just about the end of our Church year. Jesus is telling us that time is running short. We don’t know when the end will come, but we know that it will come some day, and is would be best for us to be hard at work for the kingdom so that we might enter into it. Not that we should attempt to cheat God as the steward did his employer, but that we might seize the day and take advantage of the time we may have in order to assure the eternity we definitely want.
Many scholars conjecture that the steward was basically writing off his own commission, and not really cheating his employer. That makes sense if we think about it; what good is a commission he wouldn’t be able to collect anyway? Better to have the good will of those customers to help him when he really needs it. And for us, what good are the temporal things of this world? We can’t take them with us. Better to write them off and have an eternity to go to.
The days are shorter now, aren’t they? It’s dark way too early, and the days are getting colder. Winter will be with us for a while, and so we turn our thoughts to the end of time. As we do so, maybe it’s time for us to think about what are the things we need to write off so that eternity can be ours. When we do that, our Lord may congratulate us too for acting so prudently.
I can see by your attendance here today that you were not caught up in the rapture last night.
I bring this up not so much to poke fun at those who mistakenly predict the end of days, but rather to use this occasion to talk about exactly what we Catholics believe about the end times. I think at some level all of us want to know when the end is coming and what it will look like. We don’t get a clear roadmap of that, for reasons I’ll discuss later, but we do have some theology around the issue.
Whenever we want to know what we believe about something, the first places we should look are in the scriptures and in the Liturgy. So I’ll start with the Liturgy, and point out the scriptures along the way. The Nicene-Constantinople Creed, which we pray each Sunday and Solemnity, includes two statements of belief about the end of time. The first comes at the end of what we believe about Jesus Christ. It says:
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead
and his kingdom will have no end.
The second statement comes at the very end of the Creed, in the part that summarizes our belief about the Church, the sacraments and eternal life:
… and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead
and the life of the world to come.
So the Creed gives us five pieces of information about the end times. First, Jesus will come again in glory. In our Gospel today, Jesus tells us: “I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be…” In his glorious return, Jesus will make manifest his kingdom in heaven and on earth, and all those who have believed in him will be taken to himself.
Second, Jesus will judge the living and the dead. Recall the scripture about the sheep and the goats, Matthew 25:31-46, in which those who have ministered to Christ made manifest in the poor and lowly of the world will inherit eternal life, and those who have failed to do so inherit eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. We believe that it is our responsibility to live the Gospel and a failure to do so manifests a rejection of Christ that is a choice to live in torment, distanced from God in eternity just as was done in life.
Third, we believe that when Christ returns, his kingdom will be everlasting. The devil may well appear to hold sway in our own time, and all it takes is a glance at the news to confirm this. But when Christ returns, all will be made new, as we read in the book of Revelation, chapter 21 (1-4): “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband…”
Fourth, there will be a resurrection of the dead. We believe that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, death is not the end for us. Those who die before Christ returns will be raised up to participate in the new, everlasting kingdom. Saint Paul tells us in his first letter to the Thessalonians (4:13-14), “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.”
And finally, we believe in eternal life. In today’s gospel, Jesus says: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you?” So we know that heaven is a place where we are to go, once we have been purified by death, and possibly purgatory (but that’s another whole homily!). Eternal life is a life of joy in heaven forever.
Getting back to the news of the last few days, in which Harold Camping of FamilyRadio.com predicted a rapture and the beginning of the end yesterday at 6pm local time, I would like to say two things. First, you’ll notice that I didn’t discuss in the five points I just made a belief in the rapture. That’s because there isn’t such a thing. Those who believe in a rapture claim that prior to the great tribulations which will precede the end times, those who have believed in Christ will be taken up, leaving everyone else “left behind.” That belief led to a whole series of popular books in the last decade. While the tribulations that precede the end were foretold by Jesus, a rapture was not. It wasn’t until the 1800s that some American fundamentalists really defined and pushed that belief. The Catholic Church has never acknowledged a rapture, it has never been revealed in Scripture or authentic Tradition, so we can dismiss it.
Second, a lot of people waste a lot of time trying to calculate the end of it all. Mr. Camping calculated that May 21st would be the end. I won’t get into how he got there, because I think the failure of it dictates that it not be given much attention, and if you really want to know, there’s a lot on the internet you can find about that. I will say that he previously predicted that the end would come in 1994, based on the same information, and claimed it didn’t come to pass due to a mathematical error on his part.
What I have to say about this is based on what Jesus tells us in Matthew’s gospel, chapter 24, verse 36: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” I think that’s pretty clear: nobody gets that big picture except God the Father, so it’s extremely presumptuous to think we could ever figure it out. Shame on us if we waste our time trying.
So what do we do with all this? Should we be prepared for the end of the world? I would say absolutely yes, and always. Going back to First Thessalonians (5:2), Saint Paul tells us, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” Since we don’t know when the end will come, but are positive that there will indeed be an end, we need to be always prepared. That preparation should be that we continue to nurture our relationship with God by participating regularly in the sacraments, and immersing ourselves in prayer and reading of the sacred scriptures. It also includes living the Gospel: finding Christ in the poor and needy and extending ourselves to lighten their load. It means proclaiming the word by the lives that we lead and the words that we speak. It means bringing everyone we can find with us to the kingdom.
There’s a lot at stake in our Scriptures today. There is a world that needs to know Jesus so that they too can know the Father and experience the joy of a real home. There is a world that needs to know the touch of Jesus so that they can be healed and strengthened for life’s journey. There is a world that needs to hear the Word of Jesus so that they can come to the way, the truth and the life. It’s on us now, none of us can be passive observers or consumers only. As St. Peter says today, we “are ‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that [we] may announce the praises’ of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are not home yet, but we can get there through our Jesus, our way, our truth, and our life.
As Saint Benedict says, “And may He bring us all together to life everlasting.” (Rule of St. Benedict, 72)
Our worshipping in these last days of the Church year is often difficult, I think. And the reason is that these readings are just hard to hear. The readings from Revelation this week have been confusing, to say the least, and maybe even a little frightening. And even if we could ignore the fright of the Revelation, well the Gospel is a bit more violent this morning than we’d like to experience at 8:00 in the morning, I think.
But there is a spiritual principle at work here. We are being called to mindfulness. If during this liturgical year we’ve been a little lax, or even have become complacent, these readings are calling us to wake up lest we miss what God is doing. God is bringing the whole world to its fulfillment, and we are called to be witnesses of it. We dare not be like those who missed the time of their visitation. We have been given the wonderful gift of Christ’s presence in our lives all year long, and we are asked to look back at where that wonderful gift has taken us.
And if we haven’t come as far as we should, then we are called to wake up and realize what’s slipping away from us. We must not be left out of the kingdom, all our hopes smashed to the ground, all because we didn’t recognize that our greatest hope was right in front of us all the time. We know the time is running short. The days are shorter, and night approaches more quickly than we’d like. The leaves have gone from the trees. The nip in the air has turned to cold and even frost; and we know there are very few days until we see some snowflakes. These are the physical manifestations of creation groaning to come to its fulfillment.
If the coming winter leaves us empty and aching for warmth, then these final days of the Church year might find us also aching for the warmth of the kingdom, that kingdom we were created to live in all our days. Let us not be like Jerusalem; we dare not miss the time of our visitation!
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.