“Tempus fugit,” the Romans used to say. “Time flies.” It’s hard to believe that we are already at the second-to-last Sunday of the liturgical year.
[My brother Tim used to say, “Time flies like an arrow, but fruit flies like a banana.” But that has nothing to do with anything.]
Where has the year gone? How can it be so close to the end already? Yet these feelings are very appropriate for Mass we will celebrate this Sunday, whose readings encourage us to count time carefully, to be aware of its passage, to meditate on our mortality and the passing of all things, and to think soberly of the end and the final judgment.
The Church gives us the entire month of November to contemplate the Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. We still have about two weeks left, and we should resist letting Advent and Christmas “creep forward” in our thoughts and spirituality, causing us to miss the graces that are meant for us in November.
1. The Readings look forward to the final judgment. The First is Daniel 12:1-3:
In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
"At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
"Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
"But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever."
This is perhaps the clearest description of the resurrection of the dead and everlasting life in the Old Testament. This prophetic oracle of Daniel was originally intended to offer hope to the people of Israel who were suffering great persecution from foreign powers, and it has continued to offer hope to Jews and Christians through many times of persecution down through the centuries.
In today’s culture, many may take offense at the idea that there will be punishment for wickedness in the life to come. As Daniel says, “others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace,” a reference to what we would now call Hell. So we need to remember that hell is a self-chosen state. Heaven is a kingdom of love, of truth, and of humility. But love is self-giving, not selfish. And truth can hurt, because it exposes our wrongdoing. And not everyone has the humility to admit the truth. Sadly, there will be those at the end of time who will choose not to exercise the humility to admit the truth and enter a kingdom of self-giving. Heaven would be a painful place for them, so they will choose to exclude themselves from the presence of God and the presence of the saints. Moreover, they could not be admitted in any event, because their attitude would, as it were, “ruin it for everyone else.”
The entire section of the Catechism on Hell (§§1033-1037) would be edifying reading this week. Here we quote just the opening paragraph:
§1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."
2. The Reponsorial Psalm is Psalm 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11:
R. (1) You are my inheritance, O Lord!
O LORD, my allotted portion and my cup,
you it is who hold fast my lot.
I set the LORD ever before me;
with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord!
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord!
You will show me the path to life,
fullness of joys in your presence,
the delights at your right hand forever.
R. You are my inheritance, O Lord!
The Psalms present an enigma for interpretation, because on the one hand most scholars are convinced that in ancient Israel there was no clear notions of resurrection or life-after-death, and some passages of the psalms express pessimism, to say the least, about the possibility of a future life (Ps 6:5; 88:10-11; 115:17). On the other hand, the literal sense of numerous songs speak of everlasting life in God’s presence and resurrection from the grave (16:10; 23:3-4,6; 30:3; 49:15; 86:13). In light of Christ’s resurrection, the Apostles were convinced that the literal sense of the psalms were guided by the Spirit of God, and that David and the other psalmists were lead to insights about the life to come that may not have been shared by their contemporaries. In the present case, Psalm 16 is a notable “resurrection” psalm that is applied by both St. Peter and St. Paul to the resurrection of Jesus in their respective inaugural sermons in the Book of Acts (Acts 2:27, 13:35).
What may have been for David and the other psalmists flashes of prophetic insight, is now clearly revealed to us in the preaching, ministry, and resurrection of Jesus. The one who said of himself, “ I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” (Jn 14:6) has clearly “shown [us] the path of life,” and it is this: “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me,” (Lk 9:23), for “provided we suffer with him … we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17). Jesus did not simply suffer for us, so that we will not suffer in this life. Rather, the Scriptures assure us, "All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted" (2 Tim. 3:12). Instead, Jesus blazed a path by his own life, suffering, death, and resurrection, making it possible for us that our own lives, sufferings, and deaths—lived in union with him—become the "road" or "way" to our own resurrections. We walk on the "trail" that Jesus has "blazed" which does involve suffering and death, but at the end of which is eternal life with God.
3. The Second Reading is Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
Brothers and sisters:
Every priest stands daily at his ministry,
offering frequently those same sacrifices
that can never take away sins.
But this one offered one sacrifice for sins,
and took his seat forever at the right hand of God;
now he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.
For by one offering
he has made perfect forever those who are being consecrated.
Where there is forgiveness of these,
there is no longer offering for sin.
Hebrews continues here in its description of Jesus as priest-king after the pattern of Melchizedek. Although the word “king” does not occur in this passage, one may note in this passage that after offering “one sacrifice for sins,” Jesus Christ “took his seat forever at the right hand of God.” Now “taking his seat … at the right hand of God,” is a kingly act. It is a royal enthronement. In fact, in ancient Jerusalem, the Temple where God “resided” and the palace of the Davidic king both faced east, and the palace was to the south of the Temple. Thus the Son of David, when he sat on his throne, was, as it were, “at the right hand of God.” The word "right" often was used to mean "south" in Hebrew, since directions were indicated presuming one was facing east.
In this passage, we see that Christ’s priestly sacrifice precedes and merits his kingly enthronement. This is also a spiritual pattern for us: in a sense, in this life we make our priestly sacrifice, in the next we receive our kingly enthronement.
The line in the passage about offering “one sacrifice for sins” is often employed as an apologetic text by non-Catholics against Catholics, with reference to the daily “sacrifice of the Mass.” Since Jesus sacrifice on the cross was a “once-for-all event,” why does the Church continually “repeat” it?
The basic answer is that the Mass is not a historical repetition of Christ’s sacrifice, but a participation in it and a re-presentation of it (a “making-it-present-again”). At Mass, time and space are pealed back and we step right up to the foot of the cross, the once-for-all sacrifice that fills all time and never ends. The Catechism says:
1545 The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. The same is true of the one priesthood of Christ; it is made present through the ministerial priesthood without diminishing the uniqueness of Christ's priesthood: "Only Christ is the true priest, the others being only his ministers."
1366 The Eucharist is thus a sacrifice because it re-presents (makes present) the sacrifice of the cross, because it is its memorial and because it applies its fruit:
[Christ], our Lord and God, was once and for all to offer himself to God the Father by his death on the altar of the cross, to accomplish there an everlasting redemption. But because his priesthood was not to end with his death, at the Last Supper "on the night when he was betrayed," [he wanted] to leave to his beloved spouse the Church a visible sacrifice (as the nature of man demands) by which the bloody sacrifice which he was to accomplish once for all on the cross would be re-presented, its memory perpetuated until the end of the world, and its salutary power be applied to the forgiveness of the sins we daily commit.
Anyone, of course, is free to disagree with the Catholic Church on this doctrine, but it’s just not the case that the Church teaches that Jesus dies again every time Mass is celebrated.
4. The Gospel is Mark 13:24-32:
Jesus said to his disciples:
"In those days after that tribulation
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.
"And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds'
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.
"Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
"But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."
Jesus words seem obviously to refer to the end of time and his final return, yet we seem to have a problem when Jesus says “this generation shall not pass away until all these things have taken place.” So why are we still here? Was Jesus mistaken?
In fact, there was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words within a generation. In AD 70 the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the historian Josephus records all sorts of ominous celestial phenomena, like those described in our Gospel, that accompanied the last days prior to Jerusalem’s destruction.
Furthermore, if we look in the Old Testament for the background of this apocalyptic language of the destruction of the old heavens and earth and the creation of the a new heavens and earth, we find that it is closely tied to Temple destruction and reconstruction. This is especially the case in the Book of Isaiah. If one searches Isaiah for language of new creation, one finds that descriptions of “the new heavens and the new earth” are closely linked to the renewal of the Temple-city Jerusalem. I’ll insert here, for those interested, a short excursus I’ve written on the subject:
The Expectation of the New Creation in Isaiah
In the fundamental “chronology” of the eschaton on Isaiah, the “new exodus” logical precedes and leads to the “new creation,” which is closely associated with, and may be identical to, the renewed Zion that forms the destination of the new exodus, even though in some passages (e.g 11:6-9) the description of the new creation actually precedes that of the new exodus (11:10-16). The key “new creation” passages in Isaiah include 11:6-9; 30:23-26; 51:3-6; 65:17-25; 66:22-23. It is theologically crucial to recognize the close connection between the new creation and the temple-city on Mount Zion, Jerusalem. Note, for example, that the description of the “peaceable kingdom” in 11:6-9 is situated on “my holy mountain,” a designation of the Temple Mount and more broadly, Jerusalem. Moreover, in 51:3, it is Zion that experiences the new creation: “For the LORD will comfort Zion … and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the LORD.” Again, 65:17 states, “I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered,” but the next verse specifies, “Behold, I create Jerusalem a rejoicing, and he people a joy.” The subsequent description does not, in fact, concern the whole cosmos, but just the city of Jerusalem, until 61:25, which reprises the “peaceable kingdom” description of 11:6-9, concluding, “They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”
The final important reference to the new creation (Isa 66:22) mentions the “new heavens and the new earth” sandwiched between passages describing the eschatological pilgrimage of the nations and the remnant of Israel to “my holy mountain Jerusalem,” and a a climactic promise that “from new moon to new moon … all flesh shall come to worship before me.”
Why the close connection between the concept of a new creation and the Temple site (the sanctuary, city and mountain)? As discussed in our treatment of the Tabernacle- and Temple-building passages in Exodus and 1 Kings, the Temple, and indeed the whole city of Jerusalem, were viewed as a kind of sacrament of the holy Garden of God and the mountain on which it rested. Thus the stream that came from the Temple Mount and watered the city was named “Gihon” after one of the rivers of Eden, and the gold, precious stones, images of cherubim, and floral and faunal motifs decorating the interior of the Tempe were meant to recall the sacred garden. Eden itself was thought of as a “navel of the universe” or a mystical microcosm of creation. These concepts also came to be applied to the Temple, and were revived when the Second Temple was built. Thus Josephus comments: “If anyone do but consider the fabric of the tabernacle, and take a view of the garments of the high priest, and of those vessels which we make use of in our sacred ministration, he will find … they were every one made in way of imitation and representation of the universe” (Antiquities 3:180).
Thus, the Temple was a small representation of the universe (microcosm), whereas the universe itself was one great sanctuary (macrotemple, cf. Isa 66:1).
The implication of all this is that the “new creation” imagery employed in the Book of Isaiah may refer either to a literal renewal of the physical cosmos, or else the construction of a new Temple that sacramentally renews the world.
The New Testament authors understood the expectation of a new creation to be fulfilled in Jesus Christ in a variety of ways. For example, St. Matthew begins his Gospel, “The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ …”, intentionally reprising Gen. 5:1: “This is the Book of the Genealogy of Adam…”, thus suggesting his Gospel is a New Genesis, Jesus Christ is a New Adam, and with the coming of the prophet from Nazareth, the world has begun a epoch as radically new as the initial creation itself. More obviously, St. John begins his Gospel, “In the Beginning was the Word,” reprising Gen. 1:1, and also presenting his Gospel as a “new Genesis,” Jesus Christ as a New Adam, and the new covenant economy as a new creation. John will later identify Jesus’ body as the new Temple: “He spoke of the Temple of his body” (Jn 2:21). The resurrection, then, amounts to the creation of a new Temple and, in a mystical sense, a “new heavens and new earth.” The resurrected Lord is himself the first fruits of the new creation (cf. 1 Cor 15:20,23) and incorporation into him enables one to participate in the new creation: “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come” (1 Cor 5:17; cf. Gal. 6:15).
The Book of Revelation ends with a reappearance of the new creation-new Temple imagery of Isaiah: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth … And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven …” (Rev. 21:1-2). The vision of the new heavens, new earth, and new Jerusalem in Rev. 21-22 must be understood as initially and sacramentally fulfilled in Jesus Christ, who is the new creation and the new Temple in his person, and communicates that newness to his members, the Church; but it also indicates an expectation of a more literal fulfillment, a renewal of the physical cosmos also anticipated by St. Paul (Rom 8:18-25).
In one sense, this language in Mark 13 of the destruction of the world, followed by God sending out his “messengers” (the literal meaning of “angels”) to gather his elect from the four corners of the world, was fulfilled in part by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (the “old world”), its replacement by the New Jerusalem (the “Temple of Christ’s body” which is the Church), and the mission of the apostles and their successors (the “messengers” of the LORD) to all the nations in the period of the early Church.
Yet the Church holds that the apocalyptic events that took place at Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the sudden expansion of the Church that took place afterward through the sending of the Lord’s “messengers,” are types and signs of a yet more dramatic fulfillment of Christ’s words when he returns at the end of time.
There have been no lack of “end times preachers” in the history of the Church, and I’m sure there are some on TV right now, interpreting current events as signs of the imminent end of history. However, Our Lord’s words that “no man knows the day or the hour” should caution us against placing any weight on a particular prediction of the end of time. Moreover, I’m not sure that attempting, perhaps, to frighten people into repentance by predictions of an imminent second coming of Christ are really effective. Shouldn’t the imminent end of our own lives—which for each of us cannot be much more than seventy years in the future, and for most of us much less—be enough motivation for us to seek reconciliation with God? The Church gives us these last weeks of the liturgical year precisely for such self-reflection, which may lead to a healthy use of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.