Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-18; Mk 13:24-32

In today’s readings and the readings of the next two Sundays (Christ the King and First Sunday of Advent) the main theme turns to the "end of the world" and the last things. Actually this can be broken down into three distinct elements: cosmic events which foretell the end, the great tribulations which immediately precede the end, and the appearance of the Son of Man or some such divine figure, which actually is the end of all things. These topics were frequently thought about, written about and talked about in the hundred years before Jesus’ birth, during his life and for years afterwards. So, we shouldn’t be surprised that they show up in the Bible. They usually recur in times of great stress and suffering.
During the second and third centuries, when Christians were undergoing persecution by Roman authorities, these themes continue to appear in Christian literature. Liturgical historians even hypothesize that there was a time of the year (usually in November) when these events were commemorated liturgically. These three current Sundays are a remnant of that commemoration. But there are many other times in Christian history when these themes dominated people’s religious imagination. I’m always fascinated whenever I visit the historical Shakertown settlement in Kentucky. (It’s southwest of Lexington and a wonderful place to visit.) In all the rooms of homes there’s a row of wooden pegs on the walls about four feet off the ground. Every night before retiring the rooms had to be cleaned, swept and all the furniture hung up on those pegs. Because tonight might be "the night" when the Second Coming of Jesus occurs. They needed to have their house and their life in order. That was on their minds all the time. It was an incredible motivation for their thoughts and actions.

I doubt if most of the members of the mainline Christian churches give the Second Coming that much thought anymore. It’s more likely they go to bed wondering what challenges are going to come tomorrow, but they don’t have any real doubts that tomorrow will come. The Second Coming is sometime way in the future, too far for me to worry about. But I wonder if there is something of lasting value that we might glean from reflection on these topics: the cosmic events, the great tribulations, and the coming of the Son of Man. Don’t read too much into this. It’s clear if we read the whole of Mark’s chapter 13, the main intent is clearly to defuse people’s concerns about these things and to encourage an attitude of patient endurance to the here and now. Still the events of "the end" do merit some attention.

The fact remains that the Second coming of Christ will occur individually for each of us. We will all die. Perhaps these three Sundays are a way of reminding all of us of that. St. Benedict says that we monastics "should keep death daily before our eyes." I have my doubts of all of us do that. People’s days are just too busy to bother with that. The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner wrote a very insightful little book, On The Theology of Death. He writes that the task of every Christian is to turn his or her death into an imitation of the death of Christ. We should be doing that throughout our life. Every pain or injury we suffer is one of those events that "foretell the end." Every major disease or serious physical ailment is a "tribulation that precedes the end." And to finally accept our own death as grace-giving will be "the Second Coming of Christ" for us. These are just some thoughts for this season that reminds us of "the end of the world" and the last things.

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