THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
As we approach the end of the Church year, the readings we encounter in the liturgy begin to look towards the end of all things. The fancy word for that is eschatology, meaning dealing with the end times. Today's readings are definitely eschatological in nature.
But here we are in danger of falling into a trap. There seems to be something within us, some sort of innate curiosity, that compels us to try to figure out just when and how the end will come. Some of us are almost desperate to know. Many of the kookier elements of our religion built their whole faith around trying to figure out when the end of the world would take place.
To give one prominent example, Herbert W. Armstrong, who founded the Worldwide Church of God in 1933, predicted the end times would come in 1936, then sometime in the early 1940s, then in 1972, again in 1982, and finally during the 1990s. And Armstrong is not alone in trying to predict the end of the world. Even the respected Billy Graham once predicted the end would come in the 1950s. Several years ago I recall seeing quite a bit on the Discovery Channel about the so-called "Bible Code," where modern false prophets would input words and phrases from the Hebrew Bible into computer software which would generate information about future events. Most recently we had all the hubbub about the end of the Mayan calendar last December.
Even within the Catholic Church we have our fringe element that tries to work out secret prophecies to predict the end days. With each new papal election I have heard (and tried to ignore) a flurry of predictions that this next pope would be the last. Most of these Catholic end-times predictions revolve around something called the prophecy of St. Malachy, which is itself a likely forgery. (You can read more about that here.)
There is just one thing that all of these modern end-times prophets have in common. They have all been wrong. And yet people still fall for them. There is just something in us that wants to know - our knowledge of when and how something is going to happen, even if we can do nothing about it, at least gives us the feeling of control. So we want to know. It's a natural desire.
But look at Jesus' reaction when He is directly asked in today's reading from Lk 21:5-19, "Teacher, when will this happen? And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?" We want to know. Tell us.
Jesus does tell them - sort of. You can read in that text, and in the many verses that follow, lots of different signs mentioned by Christ. Our Lord speaks of nations rising against nations, of earthquakes, famines, plagues, and "awesome sights and mighty signs" -- things that would make great action movies. But listen carefully to how Jesus prefaces all of this. "See that you not be deceived," He says. Because He knows how easy we all can fall into deception on this point. "For many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,' and 'The time has come.' Do not follow them!"
He begins His talk about the end times by warning us not to follow all those people who will claim to know. I'm sure you have heard people look at the horrible things happening in the news, our wars and conflicts and natural disasters, and say, "These must be signs of the end times." Contrast this with the words of Christ: "When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end."
Those who are curious enough to open their Bibles and read the rest of this chapter in Luke, will come to this statement by Christ: "Truly I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all this has taken place" (Lk 21:33). And so many of the first Christians believed the end would come during their lifetime. But Christ also said, in the parallel passage in Mark's gospel, "But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray, for you do not know when the time will come" (Mk 13:32-33).
When you hear the predictions of false prophets, just remember that Jesus Himself did not claim to know when the end would come. And why not? Because to Christ, the specific day and time is not important, and so should not be important to us. What is important is this: the end will come. There will be an end. Time is finite: it has a beginning and it will have an end (even modern science supports the fact that the universe will eventually wind down). Our lives on this earth, too, are finite. We had a beginning. We will have an end. Christ, in these eschatological statements, is trying to instill in us a sense of urgency. We don't know when the end will come. It could come at any time. Be ready.
For whether the End of All Things comes during your lifetime or a billion years from now, there is one thing we know with absolute certainty - your personal end will come relatively soon. Your own death is on the horizon. Whether it happens today or 60 years from now, it's still a relatively short span of time we have to enjoy on this earth. Your death is certain.
College students don't sped a lot of time meditating on their own mortality. While it may sound morbid to contemplate your own death, this can and should be a very healthy exercise. Medieval monastics used to keep human skulls on their bedside tables to remind them each morning as they rose that this may be their last day on earth.
We should take our example from them, and live our lives as if we may not be here tomorrow. Reflecting on death need not be grotesque. Instead, it should help us focus on how we are living. Each day we should take an account of our actions and our thoughts and our relationship with God. Are we ready to stand before Him at this hour and give account for our lives? Is there anything we need to repent of? Today is the day for repentance! Could we grow more in holiness? Today is the day for sanctification! Have we thanked God enough for our blessings? Today is the day to give thanks! It is easy to be lazy and put these things off until tomorrow, but we will one day (perhaps today) run out of tomorrows.
We may very well be living in the End Times in 2013. I don't know. It does not matter. We should live as though we are. Because each of us is living in our own personal End of Days. We have, in a manner of speaking, been dying since the day we were born. But we rejoice because we have the cure for death, the terminal illness of our existence. We have been inoculated against that curse by Jesus Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life. Jesus speaks not only of tribulation but also salvation. "They will seize you and persecute you... and they will put some of you to death... but not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives."
Persevere in the faith. Persevere in truth. Persevere in love. Don't be led astray by false prophets. Stay close to Christ and no suffering or death -- not even the end of the world -- will overcome you. Christ conquers all.