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Jesus himself paints an alarming picture — an alarmist picture, some will say. But once you understand it, you hope it is true because it is truly hopeful.
Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke comes between the story of the widow’s mite and the announcement that the Son of Man will come again “in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Right before the passage we hear on Sunday, Jesus praises a widow who donated a tiny coin to the Temple. That’s the context in which he overhears people praising how the Temple is “adorned with costly stones and votive offerings.” So part of the force of what he says here is that the woman’s gift is of lasting value and the Temple isn’t — since “there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Jesus is filled with dark predictions about more than the Temple, though.
He predicts that false prophets will lead people astray, that there will be natural disasters and wars and treachery. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom,” he says. “There will be powerful earthquakes, famines and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”
No one will be spared from suffering — not even the good guys. “They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name,” he says.
In the dwindling days of the liturgical year, this is the message the Church wants to leave us with. And in the days after the midterm elections, this is the message God wants to deliver to us: Christian life entails real sacrifice, difficult sacrifice, painful sacrifice, and precious few easy victories.
But it all ends not in horror, but in hope.
“The Lord is coming to rule the Earth with justice,” says the Psalm, and follows it with these intense phrases: “Let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth.”
It is hard to imagine a more intense expression of joy.
Jesus ends the Gospel on a note of hope too: “Not a hair on your head will be destroyed. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The cross always brings real pain — and permanent hope.
This can all sound strange in the extreme, and it certainly has, most of my life, to me.
I weary the theologians at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, with my many questions about aspects of the faith that don’t make sense to me. And I have sat in several offices asking about this.
“How does any of this make sense?” I ask. Why would Jesus put us through a “test life” that only feels real, when he means for a real life in heaven (or hell) to follow? And why would Jesus come once, watch people ignore him and drift into sin, all the while planning to come again, only he will really mean it the second time?
Hasn’t he heard the phrase that people might be tempted to say to him? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” Am I to believe that he came once, definitively, and it didn’t get the job done — so he plans to come an even more definitive second time?
Well, I do believe it, now more than ever. Let me explain why it makes sense to me.
To phrase everything like I did above is to think of the problem all wrong. Jesus didn’t come once and fail. He never left, but we failed. So he has given us a second chance.
In the beginning, the God of love made space, time and mankind through whatever processes God thought best. He made us free beings able to love him, and asked us if we would. Outside of space and time, the angels got the same choice, and those who chose love are still with him; those who chose self-will over love excluded themselves from God’s presence forever.
Here on earth, Adam and Eve, unfortunately, chose not to love, and like the angels’ choice, theirs had real, permanent consequences: It locked their self-will into us, their descendants, just as surely as our ancestors’ choices locked our hereditary characteristics into us. But their choice came not in the forever of the angels’ eternity, but in the long slog of time. Since we have time, we have time to change. So God went to work to win us back, with all the unfolding of salvation history meant to convince us that he takes us seriously, loves us, and wants us back.
The crowning act of salvation history is the incarnation, and the crowning act of the incarnation is the cross. Jesus used it to give us a ladder up and out of our predicament — a way to choose love after all.
But the cross isn’t easy, and God’s love isn’t cheap.
People wonder why God doesn’t just shrug his shoulders and allow everyone to join him in heaven. He doesn’t do that for the same reason he can’t shrug his shoulders and make everyone vote pro-life. They don’t want to, and free people won’t do what they don’t want to do.
What God will do, though, is try to make the world want him. That’s why Christians are told to love our neighbors so thoroughly that they will want to love God. And that’s why he will come again. His second coming is not an act of absurdity; it’s an act of absurdly loving mercy.
The First Reading today isn’t about God giving his people a threat so much as it is about him giving us clarity.
The prophet Malachi writes:
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts.”
But notice how the reading ends: “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
Jesus isn’t saying that there will be two different realities, one for the bad guys and one for the good guys. He says there will be one reality, the rising of the fiery “sun of justice,” but those who prepare for it will find it healing, and those who don’t will find it destructive.
The Second Coming will end the time of mercy. Malachi in the First Reading calls it a day of fire, and St. Peter does too. We are like Shadrach, Meshack and Abednego: The fire will burn up those who throw us in the furnace but closeness to God will make us sing with the one who is “like a Son of God” in the midst of the flame.
Why will the afterlife burn people up? Because God is an “all consuming fire,” as Hebrews puts it. Pentecost Sunday demonstrates what those in contact with God look like — they look like someone set them on fire.
Think of the fire as the passion of God’s love, so intense it moves the stars and warms us from the inside out. Then learn how to make God’s love your own.
There is much speculation about whether the predictions in this Gospel are a reference to our times or not.
The Church answers: Of course they are. Ever since Christ rose from the dead, we have been in these “end times.” We are to react with urgency, repentance and reform of life.
The next few weeks will tell us how: First will come the Feast of Christ the King. There, we will see ourselves in the person of the thief, crucified with Jesus. Then will come Advent when John the Baptist will echo Malachi’s prophesy of radical change and a baptism of fire.
Then, at the end of Advent, we will find just what that radical new relationship with God looks like — when he comes as a baby in the manger, reaching out his arms in a story guaranteed to make us love him.
He longs for us to love him, because in the end, love will be all that matters.