Immaculate Conception and St. Dominic, Stone

Including Sacred Heart Church, Eccleshall
 

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33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

Just a Thought.

Each celebration of the Eucharist recalls the end toward which salvation history is directed, a history that unfolds from its origins, which Christ accomplished and whose full realisation we are awaiting. ‘When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death O Lord, until you come again.’ The certainty that everything is oriented toward an end is at the heart of Christian faith and hope. ‘End’ in Greek is ‘eschaton’ which is where we get the word ‘eschatology’ — the study of the end times; it is this that we are hearing about today in our readings. Every year, on the Thirty-third Sunday, the penultimate Sunday in Ordinary Time, the Church offers us a celebration explicitly centered on the mystery of the end-time. This celebration corresponds to that which begins the liturgical year, the First Sunday of Advent. The liturgy thus invites us Christians to consider all things under the aspect of eternity by grounding themselves in the certainties guaranteed by faith. Creation, which God made beautiful and good, will be transfigured by the Spirit; Christ will come again, those who prepared themselves to receive him, will live with him forever; this future is decided in the present. It matters little to know when and how the new world will appear: at the end of a slow germination, invisible to human eyes, or with dazzlingly suddenness of a flash of lightning? The images that evoke it must not mislead us. The day and the hour remain the secret of God alone.

As in some prophetic books, we find visions in the Book of Daniel, but never any specific oracles pronounced in the Lord’s name. The author of the Book of Daniel reports facts, events. The details in some of the stories are remarkable and are consistent with what we know from other sources; they probably correspond to the period when the book was written, circa 174 BC. Other narratives resemble edifying stories composed from memories of the past and embroidered to the point of improbability. The important aim of the stories is to encourage the readers to remain steadfast in their faith and assiduous in their observance of the Lord’s Law in spite of external pressures, persecutions and the bad example of those who have faltered. They want to show that God always has the last word and that faithfulness to his Laws is already rewarded. Finally, the author envisions the end of salvation history, which he calls the ‘end time.’ On this Sunday, we read a few verses of this ‘apocalypse.’ History appears as an unceasing and always to be renewed struggle between good and evil; a battle which threatens discouragement to those who heroically undertake it. Memories of past victories can give them heart for a moment: but how can one forget that today’s or tomorrow’s successes will certainly be challenged like all the others by new and increasingly aggressive assaults of evil? At this point we see the apocalyptic writers revealing to us that at the end of history, we shall see, after a last and especially violent confrontation, the dazzling and definitive victory of good. Although set at the horizon of history, this final outcome is not far away. In order for it to happen, the decisive intervention of an up to then hidden force will be necessary. ‘At that time Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people.— Sent to serve, for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation.’ Angels in the Bible, are messengers and executors of God’s will. They play an important role in the apocalyptic literature that describes the last day. The Book of Daniel is the first to mention Michael his name — ‘Who is like God’ — designates him as the closest auxiliary and servant of God — the prince of the angels. If he ‘arises’ — stand erect — now; it is because the hour is dangerous and because God wants, once for all, to put an end to evil. The struggle promises to be hard. (In the end God will send His Son — first to save mankind and then coming a second time at the end of time as their judge).

There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence. When that time comes, your own people will be spared, all those whose names are found written in the Book’ in which the good works of everyone is recorded. And they will rise from ‘the dust of the earth’ and the ‘shadow of death’ and will have a share in the nature of God. Throughout the good days and disastrous one’s history is walking toward ‘that time’ of light and salvation. The whole of creation longs with all its strength to see this revelation. Under diverse and varied forms, the prophets have foretold, under the term ‘Day of the Lord’ a decisive intervention by God in the course of human history and salvation. ‘In those days’ extraordinary events will occur. They will shake heaven and earth in the manner of a cosmic catastrophe of unimaginable magnitude. People will be terrified. But at the end of this harrowing period, the dawn of salvation will rise; this is why we speak of the ‘Day of the Lord’ the faithful must wait in trust. In apocalypse, this ‘Day’ is that of the end described, with a wealth of images and symbols. Their precise meaning remains obscure and has given rise to all sorts of interpretations. By taking them together, we get a very vivid, impressive, and terrifying scene. In times of crisis and upheavals — natural catastrophes, plagues, wars, —apocalypses of whatever origins, often mixed together, find a renewal of popularity. Interpretations are circulated that claim to know the meaning of each image, each symbol, and, on that basis, pretend to announce with certainty and in great detail what is going to happen and to give precise dates to the foretold events — But ‘Nobody knows the day or the hour’ not even Jesus. Of course, Jesus knew the prophecies and other biblical predictions concerning ‘The Day of the Lord’ (His day), particularly those of the Book of Daniel about the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ a rather mysterious title that he applied to himself. Besides, his teaching essentially bears upon the good news of the Kingdom of God, the coming of which is at hand with the advent of the Son of Man.

The three synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke, have kept the memory of a discourse of Jesus more explicitly devoted to this prediction of the end. Each of them narrated it in reference to the concrete circumstances of his time and to the situation of the Church in which he lived. But all three of them inserted it into their Gospel just before the account of the Passion. On this Sunday, we read an excerpt from Mark’s Gospel dealing with the appearance of the Son of Man at the end of a period of undetermined duration, and especially troubled: ‘In those days after the 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 is classical language of apocalypse. We must not yield to the temptation of imagining the cosmic upheavals alluded to and still less of picturing them. On the other hand, it is instructive to bring this description side by side with the story of creation. Then, God began by creating light, separating it from darkness, afterwards making lights — sun, moon and stars — to illumine the earth and ‘mark the fixed times, the days and the years.’ — ‘In those days’ humans will not have at their disposal their usual points of reference, trustworthy up until then. But this is not to say that creation will be destroyed and chaos reign, when earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the abyss.’ These disturbances will act as prelude to the coming of the ‘Son of Man’ He will be seen ‘coming in the clouds with great power and glory.’ It is inconceivable that such a glorious appearance should happen in a desolate world, that it should have for its setting an indescribable heap of wreckage and ruins, that it should unfold on a stage filled with debris and other rubbish accumulated by the gigantic collapse of a world suddenly crashing to pieces. Rather, the image evokes a new creation, where the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its light and the stars will fall before the splendour of the ‘Son of Man’: ‘Then he will send his angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.’ Mark fixes his readers attention, not so much on the ‘tribulation’ that precedes the end as on the luminous and glorious manifestation of the Son of Man who comes to gather his elect. What is presented here is an encouraging perspective, the good news, ‘the Gospel of Jesus Christ [the Son of God].’ As for the ‘tribulation’ we are told: ‘Do not panic, do not lose heart, it is not yet the end. Do not forget the Son of Man will come to inaugurate a new creation and gather all the elect around himself.’ Still — a question still remains though, that occurs again and again with new urgency: ‘Tell us, when will this happen, and what sign will there be when things are about to come to an end?’ Jesus’ answer its apt to disconcert us; in any case, it does not satisfy our curiosity. To know the day and the hour has no true importance for salvation. On the other hand, we must absolutely know how to act when faced with the prospect of the coming of the Son of Man. ‘In those days’ that remain and will remain undetermined. This is the teaching of the little fig tree: ‘When its branches become 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 very gates.’ Appearances of false prophets, famines, wars, persecutions, catastrophes of all kinds are harbingers of the coming of the Son of God, as the onset of labour pains announces imminent birth. We must endeavour to decipher them, which is not without risk. But be clear about one thing my friends the battle has already been won — with Christ the victor — we have only to stand firm in our faith: ‘When all these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is close at hand… Stay awake praying at all time, for the strength to survive all that is going to happen and stand with confidence before the Son of Man.’

 

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