In the first reading for Tuesday of the first week of Advent is expressed the implicit longing of all creation for healing. Isaiah tells us of the healing that will one day come to creation when prey lie down in peace with their predators:
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them. The cow will feed with the bear, their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra, and the young child put his hand into the viper’s nest. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:6-9).
Hence, when Christ from His judgment seat shall finally say, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:5), and when with John we see “a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), I have little doubt that animals will share in that recreated and renewed kingdom where death shall be no more (Rev 21:4).
In this passage, St. Paul goes so far as to “personify” creation:
For indeed, creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Romans 8:19-21).
Yes, creation itself eagerly awaits the day when God will say (in the words of an old spiritual), “Oh, Preacher, fold your Bible, for the last soul’s converted!” Then creation itself will be set free from its bondage to death and decay and will be gloriously remade into its original harmony and the life-possessing glory that was once paradise.
Maybe now, through the mystery of our interaction with our pets, God is giving us a glimpse of the harmony we will one day enjoy with all creation. Perhaps our pets are ambassadors for the rest of creation, a kind of early delegation sent by God to prepare the way and begin to forge the connections of the new and restored creation. Maybe they are urging us on in our task of making the number of the elect complete so that all creation can sooner receive its renewal and be restored to the glory and harmony it once had. Who knows? But I see a kind of urgency in the pets I have had over the years. They are filled with joy, enthusiasm, and the expectation of something great.
They show joyful expectation! Yes, there was a kind of joyful expectation in the dogs of my youth: running in circles around me, dashing to greet me when I arrived home, and jumping for joy when I announced a car ride or a walk. My cats have always sauntered over to meet me at the door with a meow, an arched back, and a rub up against my leg. Somehow our pets manifest the passage above: creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed (Romans 8:19).
While I realize that we humans often project what we want their behavior to mean, I am still fascinated by the way our pets come to “know” us and set up a kind of communication with us.
Dogs, especially, are very demonstrative, interactive, and able to make knowing responses. Cats are more subtle. My cat, Jewel, knows my patterns. She also knows how to communicate to me that she wants water, food, or just a back rub. She’s a big talker, too, meowing each time I enter the room. Sometimes I wish she could just tell me what she wanted!
Yes, this interaction with our pets is indeed mysterious. I am not suggesting that animals are on a par with humans intellectually or morally; Scripture is unambiguous that animals are given to us by God and that we are sovereign stewards over them. However, animals—especially our pets—are to be appreciated as gifts from Him. Scripture is also clear that animals will be part of the renewed creation that God will bring about when Christ comes again in glory.
They are part of the Kingdom! Without elevating pets (no matter how precious to us) to the full dignity of human beings, it is not wrong to think that they will be part of the Kingdom of God in all its restored harmony and beauty.
One day when Christ comes again, creation, now yearning, will receive the healing for which it longs.
The first song in this video, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming,” takes some of its lyrics from earlier verses in Isaiah Chapter 11, from which we read this day.
As winter approaches and the end of the liturgical year draws near, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in today’s Gospel reading must surely have shocked, even horrified, His apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.
The Place of this Gospel – Jesus is standing just outside of Jerusalem. In the last two months we have followed Him on His final journey: leaving Galilee, heading south along the Jordan River, passing through Jericho, and now making the nearly 2000-foot ascent to Jerusalem.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly-carved, white, gilded, ashlar stones gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.
Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.
In what has become known as “MountOlivet discourse,” the Lord warns, in great detail, of the coming destruction of the Temple and indeed of all Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain similar descriptions of what Jesus said on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem in her glorious heyday.
Jesus warns of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of a time in the near future when nation will rise against nation and a terrible conflict will ensue. In effect, He warns His disciples and their followers to have nothing to do with the coming wars. He tells them that when they see Jerusalem being surrounded by an army, they should know that her destruction is at hand. If someone is on a man’s rooftop, he should not to go back into the house to gather his possessions; rather, he should get out immediately. If someone is out in the field, he should not reenter the city of Jerusalem; rather, he should flee to the hills. Jerusalem is doomed for its lack of faith and zealots are picking up the war with the Romans that they are destined to lose (Luke 21, Matt 24, Mark 13).
All of this leads us to today’s Gospel (from the Mount Olivet discourse), which picks up in the middle. Jesus warns of days of tribulation, when the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky!
In reading a text like this, we must not fall prey to an overly literal interpretation. Jesus is using prophetic language, a way of speaking that is meaningful, but not to be understood scientifically or literally. Stars do not actually fall from the sky!
If I were to say, “The world has been turned upside down,” you wouldn’t expect that if you looked back toward Earth from outer space you would see Australia at the top and North America at the bottom. If I were to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you wouldn’t expect to look out your window and see animals coming down from the sky and landing on the front lawn. Although I’m speaking figuratively, you understand what I mean.
So it is with Jesus’ use of prophetic imagery. Speaking of the heavenly luminaries as being darkened or cast down is a prophetic way of saying that all the fixed points, all the ways by which we tell time, know the seasons, navigate, and find perspective will be lost to us! The world as the Jewish people know it, centered on the Temple and rooted in their liturgical calendar, is about to be swept away. To the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was Big Ben. It was both the clock of the liturgical cycle and the great visual center of Israel.
The Lord is teaching them that what they see as the hub of all they do is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all its rituals, its liturgical cycles, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus, the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant.
In the MountOlivet discourse, Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple, which will take place in a biblical 40 years. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 ½ months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.
So, this is the place of this Gospel, a place of epic significance in the ancient world. An era of 1000 years was coming to an end. The world as the Jewish people knew it was ending. The Temple has never been rebuilt; it has been replaced by a Judaism without sacrifice, a rabbinic, a synagogue system. In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of today’s Gospel.
What does this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.
1. The Perspective of Passing– Toward the end of the Gospel passage, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. All of the things that impress us: the might of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati—all of this will pass away.
Indeed, even now it is passing away, its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,
The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).
Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed by this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.
Some years ago, I was in a museum and in one of the exhibits saw a photograph of a family from about the 1880s. At the bottom of the photo was this inscription: “My family, as it appeared for a brief time last summer”—a poignant caption. I thought of the people in that photo, every one of them now dead. I also knew that the house in front of which the photo was taken had long since been destroyed, replaced by an expanding city district of buildings. All is passing; nothing remains here for long.
Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a string kind of serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free. As for man, his days, or the flower of the field are like the grass. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him anymore (Psalm 130:15-16). We are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.
2. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. Although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.
Too many people root their lives in passing things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear, but God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.
Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church, but He promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.
In all of this the Lord has been proven correct. The Church has seen the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear.
How many heresies, how many philosophies have come and gone in the age of the Church? How many have laughed at the Church, announcing that she was passé, that her day was over, and that they would bury her? The Church has buried every one of her undertakers, outlived every one of her critics. Despite every prediction of her demise, she has persevered until this very day. By God’s grace, she has a permanence that outlasts every one of her enemies. She has read the funeral rites over every single prophet of her doom, and she will continue to do so.
In recounting all of this we do not simply gloat that an institution known as the Church has survived. Rather, we announce that the Church is the Bride of Christ and also His Body. The Church cannot be destroyed, not because of human ingenuity but on account of the power and grace of God. She will endure even though at times she will suffer, be ridiculed, or be marginalized. She will outlive every enemy. She will emerge from every persecution. She will never be removed. For the Church is the Body of Christ, the living Word of God. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!
3. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away, and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be, but we willfully ignore it.
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 (Matt 24:32-33).
Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and clearly passing, but death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Ridiculous!
It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is imprudent to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever.
It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. It is tragic how much time, effort, and passion we spend on things that pass through our fingers like sand. So much of our effort is expended on furthering our career, amassing wealth, and enlarging our home; so little is spent on improving our spiritual life.
Parents spend more time worrying about what college their children will attend than where they will spend eternity. If their child is failing math, they will go to great lengths to hire tutors to improve his test scores. Never mind that the child barely knows the four Gospels, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even who Adam and Eve were. Never mind all that; we need to make sure they understand polynomials! It is fine that parents care about math scores and college venues, but how sad it is that eternal things often go unattended.
The greatest duty of parents is to prepare their children for eternity, yet far more time and effort is often spent preparing them for passing things like a career. While education and career are important, eternal life is far more so. A son or daughter may graduate from Harvard Law School and become a famous attorney yet still go to Hell!
What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things for which we strive, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a time and place to pray as we do searching for a restaurant for dinner, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.
In today’s Gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. Impressed by it though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.
We find time for everything else, why not for prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?
What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.
This world is passing away. Far more essential for us than power, prestige, money, possessions, worldly philosophies, and the latest trends, is the Word of the Lord, which never passes away.
The world will laugh and say that God’s word is out-of-date, old-fashioned, or even hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. In the end, time will prove where wisdom is. Long after our current critics, those who scorn the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures and the Church, have passed on, we will still be here preaching Christ and Him crucified.
None of this is meant to sound triumphalist. It is simply rooted in a Word of truth that the Lord spoke long ago on a hillside overlooking glorious buildings soon to be reduced to rubble and an age soon to pass away. He said simply this: Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.
In the end, Jesus wins. I know because I checked the end of the story. You can look it up (Rev 20-23). Get on the winning team. Stop trying to amass a treasure here that you can’t keep anyway.
In the Gospel for Tuesday of the 29th Week, Jesus reminds us to be ready, but what does that mean? Let’s consider four ways that the Lord describes.
READY to WORK – Jesus says, “gird your loins,” which is the ancient equivalent of saying, “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has a work for us and wants us to get to it. He’s not thinking of a worldly career, but rather things such as raising children in godly fear, pursuing justice, and growing in holiness. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom.
We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness. The Lord has a particular work for each of us based on the gifts He has given us. Some can teach, others work well with senior citizens, still others have a good head for business and can provide employment at a just wage. Some are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffering and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others in weakness. In some way, all are called to serve, to work. So, work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing our work.
READ the WORD – The Lord says, “light your lamps.” Taken from a literal standpoint, this refers to getting ready as described in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13). In another sense a lamp is a symbol for Scripture. For example, Your Word, O Lord, is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path (Ps 119:105), We possess the prophetic message that is altogether reliable. You will do well to be attentive to it, as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts (2 Peter 1:19).
So, from today’s Gospel we can also understand that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in Scripture and in the teachings of the Church. In this increasingly secular world, so hostile to the faith, our minds are bound to be sullied unless we read Scripture every day. How can our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world? Being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.
REMAIN WATCHFUL – The Lord says, “and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. … Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
There are different ways to watch and wait. There is the passive watching and waiting such as one might do when waiting for a bus to come, but there are other more active ways such as a waiter might exhibit as he hovers in the background anticipating the needs of the diners. It is this watchful and waiting spirit that the Lord has in mind here. If we have invited guests to our home, we prepare our house and make sure everything is in order as we await their arrival. In a less literal sense, to set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness, by God’s grace, and to remove the clutter of worldliness. Regular confession and daily repentance sweep clean the house of our soul; simplifying our life and minimizing worldly attachments de-clutters the house of our soul.
Have you prepared the house of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If you haven’t, the Lord says that you may experience him as a thief; He is not really a thief, though, because everything belongs to Him. If we have not renounced our worldliness and greed, if we have not de-cluttered our lives worldly attachments, the Lord will come to take back what is His; He will seem a thief to us because we think it is ours. It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!
REFLECT on your reWARD – The Lord says, Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on his arrival. Amen, I say to you, he will gird himself, have them recline at table, and proceed to wait on them. And should he come in the second or third watch and find them prepared in this way, blessed are those servants.
The Lord is clear that He has a reward for those who are found ready. It is prefigured in the banquet of the Eucharist, wherein the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. The Lord says, Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20). And I confer a kingdom on you, just as my Father has conferred one on me, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom (Luke 22:30).
For most of us in the Western world today, food is easy to come by and not given a great deal of thought. In the ancient world this was not so, and one of the pleasures people looked forward to most was a hearty meal in the company of friends and family. The Lord offers us the magnificent blessing of Heaven, where we will be with Him and those whom we love forever in unspeakable joy and peace.
Do you meditate often on Heaven and long for its rewards? It seems strange to me that we speak so little about Heaven. Because it is not a place any one of us has been, it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like, but we should be reflecting often on the joy awaiting us there. Part of being ready to go home to Lord is longing for that day. When we want to do something we eagerly prepare for it; we are motivated and make sacrifices to do it.
Last year a group from my parish traveled to the Holy Land. Many of them saved money for two years through a payment plan to be able to go. In preparation, we gathered together periodically, studying maps and reading Bible stories. On the day of departure many in the group arose early and arrived at the airport hours ahead of time. Eagerly reflecting on Heaven and the joy awaiting us there should be similar. If we desire Heaven we will more naturally get ready and lay aside whatever is necessary to make the passage there.
So, here are four ingredients constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause he may be comin’ soon!
In the car commercial below every imaginable attack is waged on the driver by various nefarious figures, but the driver just keeps on driving. Similarly, we must just keep on preaching and teaching no matter what foolish or evil things assail us, no matter the obstacles. St. Paul reminds us,
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
I’m not quite sure what to make of the woman at the end of the commercial. Let’s just call her Mother Church. Christ and His bride will win! The wicked will wage their war, but in the end, they will turn on one another. Evil cannot endure. Jesus and His bride win! Viva Cristo Rey!
As the end of Advent approaches, the Office of Readings features some final admonitions from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. On the one hand they console; on the other, they challenge us to remain firm.
Isaiah addressed a people in exile who still awaited the first coming of the Lord. Today, these texts speak to us in difficult times when, exiled from Heaven, we await His magnificent Second Coming.
Let’s look at these admonitions from the Lord (Isaiah 46:3-13), which were addressed to three different groups in ancient Israel. However, let’s apply them to three groups in our own times: the faithful remnant, the foolish rebels, and the fainthearted at risk.
To the Faithful Remnant – Hear me, O house of Jacob, all who remain of the house of Israel, my burden since your birth, whom I have carried from your infancy. Even to your old age I am the same, even when your hair is gray I will bear you; It is I who have done this, I who will continue, and I who will carry you to safety.
This is directed to the devoted, to the remnant, to those who remain after the cultural revolution in our times, to those sometimes discouraged and sorrowful over the infidelity of loved ones and of the world around them. To these (often the elderly among us who remember a more faithful even if imperfect time) the Lord first speaks.
In effect, He says, Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Who are the mournful? They are those who see the awful state of God’s people: not glorifying the Lord in their lives, not knowing why they were made, spending themselves on what neither matters nor satisfies. Yes, those who mourn shall be strengthened, and, as their sorrow has motivated them to pray and work for the kingdom, they shall be borne to safety.
Such as these, the faithful remnant, should never forget that God has carried them from the beginning, even in the strength of their prime. Now, reduced by age, they are still carried by the Lord. He has never forgotten them and will carry them to safety; their faith in difficult times will be rewarded.
To The Foolish Rebels – Remember this and bear it well in mind, you rebels; remember the former things, those long ago: I am God, there is no other; I am God, there is none like me. Whom would you compare me with, as an equal, or match me against, as though we were alike? There are those who pour out gold from a purse and weigh out silver on the scales; Then they hire a goldsmith to make it into a god before which they fall down in worship. They lift it to their shoulders to carry; when they set it in place again, it stays, and does not move from the spot. Although they cry out to it, it cannot answer; it delivers no one from distress.
The word “rebel” is from the Latinre (again) + bellum (war). In this context it refers to those who are forever at war with God and His plan for their lives. They foolishly forget His saving deeds. They imagine vain things: that there are other gods or entities that could save them. Even more foolishly, they craft other “gods” that they have to lift upon their shoulders to carry.
Many in our day act in the same way: always at war with God, His Church, and His plan. As G.K. Chesterton once noted, when people stop believing in God, it is not that they will believe in nothing but that they will believe in anything. Chesterton also wrote that when we break God’s big laws, we don’t get liberty; we get small laws. We transfer our trust away from God to false, crafted gods like government, or science, or the market. We hope that they will carry us, but we end up carrying the weight of these gods on our own shoulders. We carry this weight in the form of taxes, debt, and anxiety about everything in our health or environment (demanded by the increasingly politicized scientific and medical communities).
Science, the market, and government are not intrinsically evil, but they are not gods, either. They cannot deliver us from ourselves; only God can do that. To the many who rebelliously and foolishly persist with their “non-gods,” He says, “I am God; there is no other.”
To the Fainthearted at Risk – Listen to me, you fainthearted, you who seem far from the victory of justice: I am bringing on my justice, it is not far off, my salvation shall not tarry; I will put salvation within Zion, and give to Israel my glory. At the beginning I foretell the outcome; in advance, things not yet done. I say that my plan shall stand, I accomplish my every purpose. I call from the east a bird of prey, from a distant land, one to carry out my plan. Yes, I have spoken, I will accomplish it; I have planned it, and I will do it.
Among the faithful there are some who are at risk, who are nearly ready to give up. God encourages them, but also warns that His plan will stand whether or not they endure. Thus there is an implicit warning from Jesus here (and an explicit warning elsewhere) that we must persevere. Jesus says that because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved (Matt 24:12-13).
St. Augustine wrote,[God has] devised a plan, a great and wonderful plan … All this had therefore to be prophesied, foretold, and impressed on us as an event in the future, in order that we might wait for it in faith, and not find it as a sudden and dreadful reality (From a discourse on the psalms by Saint Augustine, bishop (In ps. 109, 1-3: CCL 40, 1601-1603)).
God’s plan will stand whether or not we do. We must stand as well, even when we want to faint or fall back. Our love must not grow cold nor our strength fail. God has triumphed and Satan has lost. We must choose with whom we will stand.
The evidence of the present age does not seem to show this, but as Scripture reminds us,
Therefore, we do not lose heart … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-17).
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:16-17).
Here, then, are some final instructions from the Lord this Advent, instructions for us who wait for Him: be faithful; the plan will come to pass. Do not be a foolish rebel, nor one of the at-risk fainthearted. Rather, be part of the faithful remnant. St. Paul says, Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the Israelites be like the sand by the sea, only the remnant will be saved” (Romans 9:27).
The song performed in the clip below is entitled “Lord Help Me to Hold Out.”
The second reading for Sunday Mass speaks to us of “the fire next time” and reminds us of the need to be ready for the coming of the Lord. In this homily I will focus on that reading, in which St. Peter reminds us of the passing that will come for us all one day.
Because Advent is a time to prepare, through prayer and repentance, we do well to heed this sacred teaching and warning. It is echoed by St. John the Baptist, of whom the Gospel today says, A voice of one crying out in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”John the Baptist appeared in the desert proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (Mk 1:2-3).
I. The PATIENCE that is PURPOSEFUL– The text says, Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.
Though the Lord seems long-delayed in coming (about 2000 years!), the text tells us that this delay is so that as many of us as possible can be saved.
Notice that the text says that God wants us to come to repentance. God’s patience should not be seen as an excuse for presumption, but, rather, a time for repentance. This is no time to be saying, “Later.” It is a time to be serious about repenting and about preparing to meet the Lord.
The Greek word here translated as repentance is μετάνοιαν (metanoian), and refers not just to better behavior but also to a new mind. Our transformation is not merely external, but internal as well. When what we think changes, so does our behavior. When our thinking is conformed to God’s revealed truth, our priorities, feelings, desires, and decisions all begin to change. Conversion and repentance are the result of becoming a changed and transformed human being with a new mind.
II. The PASSING that is PERILOUS– The text says, But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.
In effect, the text says that God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days. When He comes it will be
Sudden– The text says that the day of the Lord will come like a thief.
This image is quite a consistent with the one Jesus used for the Day of Judgment. However, this image should not be the future for those of us who wait and watch. St. Paul says, But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thess 5:4,6).
Further, the image of God as a thief is not appropriate for us if we realize that all we have and all we are belongs to Him. For those who are worldly and who claim authority over themselves and their things, God is a thief who comes suddenly and in a hidden way. He overtakes their perceived ownership and possession, putting an end to it. To them, God seems to be a thief, as He “steals” what they consider theirs. They are badly misled.
For those who watch and are prepared (pray God), the Lord comes not to take but to give. He comes to bestow and reward as we inherit His Kingdom.
Shocking– The text speaks of the roaring heavens and of a fire that overwhelms; all will be dissolved by fire.
This image, though shocking, should not alarm us if we are already on fire. At Pentecost, as well as at our individual baptism and confirmation, the Lord lights a fire within us in order to set us on fire, to bring us up to the temperature of glory. For those in the Lord, the “weather” on that day will seem just fine.
The prophet Malachi speaks of the different experiences of the day of the Lord in this way: Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. Notice therefore, that for some the Day is burning with wrathful heat, but for the just, it is a sunny day wherein the sun of righteousness will bring warmth and healing (Mal 4:1-3).
An old spiritual refers to this verse saying, “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no water but the fire next time.” God wants to get us ready by setting us on fire with His love and grace. If God is a Holy Fire, then we must become fire ourselves in order to endure the day of His coming.
Showing – The text says that all things will be revealed.
It would seem that this fire burns away the masks that many people wear, leaving them to be seen for what they really are. The Lord says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). In the Gospel of Luke He says, There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known. What you have said in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and what you have whispered in the ear in the inner rooms will be proclaimed from the roofs (Lk 12:2-3).
Even the just may wince at this, for all of us have a past; most would prefer that the past stay in the past. When I have visited “12-Step” meetings, I have sometimes seen people recount what they did when they were drinking. They seem to do so with little shame and much laughter, probably because they are sharing it with others who understand, who have also been set free from the source of the problem. Perhaps, for the just, the “day of disclosing” will be like that.
For those who are unrepentant, though, imagine their embarrassment and fear as their secrets, sins, and past injustices are disclosed to those who are also unforgiving and unmerciful. It’s a bad scene, really.
III. The PRESCRIPTION that is PROCLAIMED– The text says, Since everything is to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be, conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire … Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.
The text asks us to consider what sort of persons we ought to be.
In a word, the answer is “fiery.” God has lit a fire within us to purify and refine us. Hence, on that day when the Lord will judge by fire, we will pass through. Although some final purifications (purgation) may take place, because the fire has been kindled in us and has already been fanned into a flame, we will be purified, not destroyed.
St. Paul describes the just as going through the purgatorial fire that leads to purification rather than destruction in Hell:If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:12-15).
So the prescription for us is to let God set us afire now so as to purify us, making us more holy and devout. The fire of His Holy Spirit is the only thing that can truly prepare us; it will permit us to endure the day of His coming and be spared the “wrath to come” (cf 1 Thess 1:10; Matt 3:7; Romans 5:9; 1 Thess 5:9), when God will judge the world and everything in it by fire.
IV. The PERFECTION that is PROMISED– The text says, But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
This text presents the possibility that the created world will not so much be destroyed as purified by God’s fiery judgment. While it may also signify a total destruction of all that now exists and a replacement of it by new heavens and a new earth, some argue that it means that the created world will instead be renewed rather than destroyed and replaced. This view is supported by other passages (e.g., Isaiah 11 and Romans 8). For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God (Rom 8:20-21).
Whatever the answer to the debate, the bottom line is that the new (or renewed) world will be a Heaven wedded to earth; the full righteousness of God will be manifest. Further, we will be without spot or blemish; we will be at peace. Yes, God’s gonna set this world on fire one of these days, Hallelujah! God’s fire purifies that which is holy and burns away all else. God will restore all things in Christ!
One of the more interesting and surprising images the Lord used for Himself was “thief.” There is an indirect reference to this in the first reading for Tuesday of the 22nd week of the year. I’ll comment more on that passage in a moment, but first here are some other texts in which He used this imagery:
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:33; Lk 12:39).
Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Rev 3:3).
“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed” (Rev 16:15).
St. Peter also used the image of a thief, but perhaps out of reverence for Christ, applied it more to the Day of Judgment.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10).
In today’s first reading, which we will discuss in more detail, St. Paul used a similar image.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:1-4; 8-9).
It is provocative and even shocking that Lord would compare Himself to a thief. Let’s consider some of the implications.
1. By this image the Lord turns the tables. Thievery suggests unjust possession. In this sense, the Lord is clearly not a thief; He is using a simile. He says that He is like a thief, not that He is a thief. Indeed, how can the owner of all things unjustly possess what is already His?
The impact and indictment of the reference is on us, not on the Lord. That He would seem to any of us to be like a thief is indicative of our injustice, not His. Too easily we forget that the things we call our own are God’s and God’s alone. We are stewards, not owners. When the Lord comes to take what is rightfully His—and has always been—we should be grateful to hand it back with interest (see the Parable of the Talents). To those who have forgotten that they are mere stewards, the Lord will seem to come to steal from them. They will see His coming as threatening because He will put an end to their schemes and worldly wealth.
Because they wrongly see these things as theirs, they will see Him as a thief—or worse, a robber. In the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21:30ff) the Lord says that they will beat His prophets and even kill His Son. The injustice and crime is theirs. God cannot steal what He already owns. The vineyard was His and He rightly sought His portion. Murderously, they sought to withhold what they thought was theirs but in fact was not.
The Lord’s ways are justice and truth. God will take back all that is His. We will pay for what we have stolen through greed, injustice, selfishness, lust, and gluttony. To some who forget that He is the true owner of the vineyard, He may appear to be like a thief, but it is really we who are thieves. We will cry “Thief!” but the Lord will simply reply, “You are the man; it is you who have said it” (see 2 Sam 12:7; Matt 26:64).
2. By this image the Lord speaks to the hidden quality of His presence to some. In using the image of a thief (Κλέπτης (kleptes) in Greek) the Lord speaks of a stealthy, hidden presence. Thieves do their work in hiding or when we are unaware. A robber, on the other hand, confronts you, taking what he wants with violence while you can only watch helplessly.
The word thief here is indicative of the Lord’s hidden presence. The Lord is not a thief, but He seems like one to those who are forgetful of His presence. Don’t fool yourself, thinking that He is not in the house of your life; He sees and knows everything.
3. By this image the Lord puts to the lie the illusion of our own hiddenness. Thieves work in hiding. Many people who sin and misuse what the Lord owns often forget that to God, nothing is hidden. Thus they meet the definition of a thief because they attempt to take or misuse secretly what is not theirs to begin with.
God may seem hidden and distant, but He is not. He sees everything, knows everything, and is reckoning everything. Every “hidden” deed of ours is written in the book. An ancient hymn says,
Lo the Book exactly worded Wherein all has been recorded Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth And each hidden deed arraigneth Nothing unavenged remaineth (Dies Irae).
God is watching and He is closer to you than you are to yourself.
4. By this image the Lord exhorts us to remember and to be ready. A recent break-in at my rectory motivated me and the staff to become more careful and vigilant. But why should the loss of passing goods cause us more concern than the certain arrival of the Lord, the true owner of all things? Although He may seem to come like a thief, He is not a thief. The real questions I should be asking myself are these: Am I a thief? Have I used what God owns in ways that are against His will or that displease Him? If so, He will come when I least expect it and take what I wrongfully think is mine. I may think Him a thief, but He is not. As true owner, He cannot unjustly possess what is already His.
We had better think about this now because the Lord is already in the house and His presence will be disclosed at any moment. Are you ready? Are you watching? Be vigilant. The Judge stands at the gate, but He has the key, not you.
Is He a thief? No. Are you a thief? Am I?
Epilogue: There came a moment in Jesus’ life when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Judas, who was a thief (see John 12:6), led a band of brigands to arrest Him. Stepping forward, Jesus turned the tables on them and said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk 14:48) Yes, He turned the tables on them and on the temple leaders who sponsored them. They saw Jesus as a usurper, as one who came to steal their priesthood and leadership. He was no thief, no robber. He was the great High Priest, the One who came to fulfill everything that they were supposed to be preaching. It was they who sought to kill him and unjustly possess the vineyard for themselves. To thieves, robbers, and murderers, Jesus was like a thief, but He was not. They were thieves—and even worse, robbers and murderers.
When Jesus says that He may be coming like a thief, be careful; He may be holding up a mirror to you!
Usually we don’t like to know the end of the story. When someone blurts out the ending it’s called a “spoiler.” What fun is it to read a whodunit when you already know who done it?
When it comes to the faith, though, not only should we know the end of the story, but we must never forget it and must base our very lives upon it. As we look about the world, it is easy to get discouraged and think that evil is winning. Yet Scripture plainly states that Satan’s plans are going nowhere, that Jesus has already won the victory. Mysteriously, the Lord allows Satan a little time to sift through the ruins of his former kingdom. Do not be deceived—Satan has lost and so have all who are allied with him.
Some lines from Psalms come to mind:
Wait a little, and the wicked will be no more;look for them and they will not be there.But the poor will inherit the earth,will delight in great prosperity.But my Lord laughs at the wicked,because he sees that their day is coming.Wait eagerly for the LORD,and keep his way;He will raise you up to inherit the earth;you will see when the wicked are cut off.I have seen a ruthless scoundrel,spreading out like a green cedar.When I passed by again, he was gone;though I searched, he could not be found.mark the upright;Because there is a future for a man of peace.Sinners will be destroyed together;the future of the wicked will be cut off (Psalm 37).
Spoiler alert! Yes, dear brethren, I checked. I went to the end of the story and, sure enough, Jesus wins! There it is, right at the end of the Bible. This is a spoiler you need to know, because you have to choose which team you’ll be on and it’s nice to know ahead of time whose team has already won. It’s like going to today’s horserace armed with tomorrow’s newspaper. You’d be a fool to bet on any horse other than the winning one. Well, you have tomorrow’s paper, and here’s what it says:
When the thousand years are completed, Satan will be released from his prison. He will go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle; their number is like the sand of the sea. They invaded the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the holy ones and the beloved city. But fire came down from heaven and consumed them. The Devil who had led them astray was thrown into the pool of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were. There they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Next I saw a large white throne and the one who was sitting on it. The earth and the sky fled from his presence and there was no place for them. I saw the dead, the great and the lowly, standing before the throne, and scrolls were opened. Then another scroll was opened, the book of life. The dead were judged according to their deeds, by what was written in the scrolls. The sea gave up its dead; then Death and Hades gave up their dead. All the dead were judged according to their deeds. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the pool of fire. (This pool of fire is the second death.) Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the pool of fire (Rev 20:7–15).
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God]. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.” The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Then he said, “Write these words down, for they are trustworthy and true.” He said to me, “They are accomplished. I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give a gift from the spring of life-giving water. The victor will inherit these gifts, and I shall be his God, and he will be my son. But as for cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, murderers, the unchaste, sorcerers, idol-worshipers, and deceivers of every sort, their lot is in the burning pool of fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Rev 21:1–8).
And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true, and the Lord, the God of prophetic spirits, sent his angel to show his servants what must happen soon.” “Behold, I am coming soon.” Blessed is the one who keeps the prophetic message of this book. … The one who gives this testimony says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all (Rev 22:6–7; 20-21).
Keep this in mind; keep it always on your mind. The result of this victory is obtained in the paradox of the cross. Jesus destroyed death by dying and tells us that to save our life we must lose it to this world. Whatever your struggles and setbacks, do not be dismayed. Love and humility have already overcome hatred and pride. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Pride cannot drive out pride; only humility can do that. The Lord allows opportunities for the light of truth to shine in the error of darkness, for love to endure in the face of hatred, and for humility to put pride to shame.
Until the last day when the trumpet shall sound, the drama carries on. But see what the end shall be. You already know the end of the story; make sure that you serve in the Lord’s army and wield the weapons of light, love, and humility.
I know this video is going to seem strange after such a serious reflection, but what could be more humble than a pig “spoiling” the movie for the entering patrons? If you listen to his advice, though, he’s basically saying what I just did: “Don’t waste your time on losers. Don’t waste your time going down a path of wrong ideas or theories. Don’t get all worked up about characters and things that don’t matter—here’s what’s really going on in the movie.”
It’s not bad advice for life, either. If you know the end of the story, there’s a lot you can disregard along the way. You’ll know where to set your focus. Keep your eyes on Jesus and the truth of His Gospel.