November 18; 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time; Year B

Lord Jesus Come in Glory

33rd OTThis has been a dramatic year for Catholics around the world. As Pope Francis faces mounting pressure almost every day, to address the spiraling clergy sex-abuse crisis, bishops facing off other bishops, accusations of confusing teachings, has brought some new revelation or declaration. Many are predicting, thankfully some only tongue-in-cheek, that these things are pointing to the end of the world. The encircling gloom of the moral and spiritual decay we see in the world and within the Church, lends weight to this argument. But whenever doomsayers abound, unapologetic optimists abound the more with what sometimes seems to be a weak assurance: “It's not the end of the world… yet'” There are all sorts of ways of using that phrase. For example, it can be a way of saying that it isn't as bad as it seems. But the point of using this phrase is because we believe the “end of the world” to be a supremely bad thing. So we try to trivialise it or to postpone the end as far as possible and perhaps even avoid it altogether.

It may come as little consolation to some of you to know that the belief that the world was quickly coming to an end, was the basic sentiment of many Christians, and in fact most people, in the decades following the death of our Lord. In fact, our Lord, even predicts this moment without disclosing the exact date or time, “In those days, after the time of distress, the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken”. This certainly conjures a frightening image of cataclysmic destruction of cosmic proportions, that all that we know will cease to exist; all that sustains us is coming to an end. But this type of “doom speaking” is actually a style of speaking and writing that is today described as “apocalyptic.”

What apocalyptic writing always does is to resonate with the experiences of the people who hear it. Shortly before today’s passage, our Lord foretold the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The audience for whom Mark writes his Gospel already knew that, the Temple was destroyed in the year 70 AD, and for many of them the destruction of the Temple was a momentous event that shook them to the core. The Temple, the House of God, Judaism’s centre of the universe, was destroyed in the Roman invasion. As far as the Jews and even Christians were concerned, this marked the “end of the world.” In fact, the Temple was seen as a microcosm of the universe, and astrological symbols representing the heavenly bodies in the universe were embroidered into the veil that formed a physical barrier that separated the holiest sanctuary of the Temple, the Holy of Holies, from the rest of the building. Was this what was meant by the “sun” and “moon” being darkened and losing their brightness? Probably.
And that's what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. The Gospel can sound rather forbidding, because they are about the end of the world, in the sense of the end of time, the last days. But actually, they also refer to events that have already taken place, “I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place.” The end of the world has happened. And instead of being bad news, it’s tremendously Good News. The sacrifice of Christ on the cross at Calvary is the ending not just of an age, but of all the ages.

When reading today’s gospel, our attention would certainly be taken up by the cataclysmic signs mentioned, namely that “the sun will be darkened, 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.” With so much happening on a cosmic scale, one can certainly miss the point. But the next line gives us the clue. “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” It’s just like the fireworks that go off before the start of an important event. People are often distracted by the pyrotechnic display in the sky, failing to see or forgetting for a moment, that this isn’t the focus of the celebrations, just the trappings; it isn’t the end, just the beginning. In other words, when reading today’s gospel, the focus is Christ, the Coming of the Son of Man in glory and victory, the one who is “near” and in fact “at the gates.”

To understand the Second Coming of Christ calls for understanding the Greek word ‘parousia’ (lit. ‘a being near’) used for this event. The choice of the word in Greek can speak of the reality of Christ having arrived (His first coming among men), His presence in our midst as well as His coming again in glory in the future to judge the living and the dead. Time and space collapses with this critical intervention of God in human history. We are living in the end times. The end is already here, but it has yet to be consummated. When is that going to happen? We should not be preoccupied with predicting the date of Christ’s Second Coming. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7)

At the end of the day, we will never be certain when the world will really come to an end. We won’t even be sure that the signs are really signs of the end times and not just natural cataclysmic events arising from shifting continental plates and changing weather conditions or just the usual turmoil that the Church is experiencing and has always been experiencing in the past. All these may seem pressing but Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI reminds us that these things should never distract us from three certainties which should always remain our foci.
1. The first certainty is that Jesus is Risen and is with the Father and thus is with us forever. And no one is stronger than Christ. We are safe, and should be free of fear.
2. Secondly, we are certain that Christ is with me. He is most certainly present in the Eucharist, the source and summit of my life. My faith in Him gives me the hope that the future is not darkness in which no one can find his way. Christ's light is stronger and therefore we live with a hope that is not vague, with a hope that gives us certainty and courage to face the future.
3. Lastly, we are convinced that Christ will return as Judge and Saviour. Therefore, we must be accountable to Him for our every action and decision.

So, the cataclysmic signs that accompany the end should never be a reason for fear but always one of hope. The signs indicate an undoing of creation in anticipation of a re-creation. What these forces destroy is not goodness or life, but rather the power of evil and sin. Destruction has to come before perfection. When things look really bad, a glorious recovery is imminent. As the historian Christopher Dawson put it, “When the Church possesses all the marks of external power and success, then is its hour of danger; and when it seems that no human power can save it, the time of its deliverance is at hand.” History moves toward this steady goal - Jesus Christ. He is the central figure of all history. And so we as Christians should not cower in fear but joyfully welcome the day when Christ returns. This is exactly what we pray for at every Mass. 'Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory!' or 'When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.' At every Mass we are always praying that Christ will come again.

The end of the world is therefore a supremely good thing, and it is something that we Christians pray for and look forward to, not because we are fed up with this world, but because we love this world even as God loves it, and we long for it to be made whole and perfect, which God in His love for us will accomplish. He will return in triumph to fulfill God’s eternal purpose with all of creation. And that would be a marvel to behold. Until then, we pray, “Maranatha!” “Come Lord Jesus!” And to those who say, “the world is ending”, we reply, “Bring it on!”