November 13, 2016 –– 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19–20a / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7–12 / Luke 21:5–19
The End Is The Beginning
This is my favorite time of year. The crisp temperatures and the beauty of autumn colors combine to make this season invigorating. I love the longer evenings that give an embrace of coziness. When the celebration of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of Christmas are thrown in, it’s about as good as life gets in this world.
Yet there are those who have different feelings. They see the beauty, but even more they see in autumn a blatant picture of coming death. The warmth of vibrant green is waning; the longer evenings are merely the darkness of shorter days. For them, the cold, dark days of winter bring the same effect to the soul.
Both perspectives are true. As with life in general in this world of ours, warmth and coldness––especially of spirit––are always coexisting. To use the language of spiritual direction, we face a mixture of consolation and desolation. The Church affirms this in many ways, and the Gospel itself illustrates it.
We are at the end of the liturgical year. In two more weeks we’ll be in Advent, which should come as no surprise since the secular version of “Christmas” is already being thrown at us. But while the culture at large wants to rush to what it calls Christmas and find a shot of happiness in the next party, the Church calls us to something quite the opposite. Even before we get to Advent (which is not just a “church-word” for Christmas; it’s supposed to be a time of spiritual examination and preparation), the Church brings its liturgical year to a close with what is called The Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The Scripture readings for today are not warm and cozy. The world that is described is not Thanksgiving turkey and pumpkin pies nor Christmas trees and Yule logs. A fire is indeed burning, but it is a fire of judgment on everything in rebellion against God: all the proud and all the evildoers will be stubble. This is not limited to stereotypical Old Testament fire and brimstone; Jesus warns of mighty signs that will bring havoc to the world. And then he says, Before all this happens, they will seize and persecute you…. and they will put some of you to death.
We “know” that Christians have died for the Faith, but such a thing has not literally come close to us––at least not yet. But as we enjoy the beauty of this fall season and anticipate the joys of Thanksgiving and Christmas, the Church––and Jesus––has a warning that corresponds with the waning of the year: Along with the assurance we can have of God’s love, mercy, and grace…. mixed in with the temporal consolations of family and feasts and cultural frivolities…. there is something else (that we’d rather not think about): Every one of us must face the reality of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
The world around us tries to calculate ways to secure ourselves: If we can “go green” in time, we can save our planet. If we can just figure out which candidate is the anti-Christ or which candidate is likely to trigger Armageddon and avoid letting that person get in office, the we will be safe. If we will tolerate everything and everybody, then everyone will leave everyone else alone and we can all live happily ever-after. This world just doesn’t work that way.
It is a mercy when the Church keeps these Scriptures before us that remind us that we are going to die. Every one of us is one day closer to our death than we were yesterday.
The judgment of God is coming. All of us will face a particular judgment in which we each will give a personal account to God of our lives. The whole world is moving to a general judgment when all that is unholy will be burned up and a new earth is ushered into the fulness of God’s forever kingdom.
As a result of that judgment, every one of us faces either heaven or hell. God promises heaven for every person who will not shut him out, because the essence of the nature of God is love and Jesus carried the sins of the world to the cross. Yet God gives every one of us the ability to shut him out; love is not forced, and the only way to open ourselves to God’s love is to love him. We cannot love God if we reject his ways. The commands of God are not arbitrary rules; the commands of God are safety codes given in love, Manufacturer’s instructions to insure that we function according to the way we were created.
We look out on a world where many things are not going right: nation against nation…. earthquakes…. famines…. plagues…. These things happen because our world is in rebellion against God. It will not always be this way. One day God will say Enough!
As surely as the year cycles to its place of dying, life in this world faces The Four Last Things. But that is not the final word. The final Word is Jesus. On the other side of death and judgment is a promise from our Lord that comes in the final book of the Bible: Behold, I make all things new (Rev 21:5). That is why Malachi could end his prophecy of the coming fire with these words: for those who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.
It is a grace to listen to the Church’s warning of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We end the old year realistically. This takes us to the true meaning of Advent and Christmas that starts a new liturgical year. In the powerful mercy of God, the end is the beginning.