On Forsaking Fear by Remaining Ready—A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this weekend (Luke 12:32-40) the Lord Jesus presents a “recipe for readiness.” He gives it to us so that we can lay hold of His offer that we not be afraid. He is not simply saying, “Be not afraid.” He is explaining how we can battle fear by being ready.

Christians today are often uncertain about what is necessary in order to be ready to meet God. Many also make light of the Day of Judgment, considering it all but certain that most of humanity will be saved.

Jesus does not adopt this position. In fact, He teaches the opposite. He consistently warns of the need to be ready for our judgment. Jesus does not counsel a foolish fearlessness rooted in the deception that all or even most will be saved. Rather, He counsels a fearlessness based on solid preparation for the Day of Judgment. Jesus tells us to do at least five things in order to be ready and therefore not afraid.

If we do not make these sorts of preparations, Jesus warns that He will come when we least expect and take away all that we (wrongly) call our own. Jesus says, But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap (Lk 21:34). The apostolic tradition says this of the unprepared: disaster will fall on them as suddenly as a pregnant woman’s labor pains begin. And there will be no escape (1 Thess 5:3).

Thus, while Jesus begins by saying that we ought not to fear (for the Father wants to grant us His Kingdom), He also warns that being free of fear is contingent upon embracing and following the plan that He sets forth for our life.

Let’s look at this plan and see how we can forsake fear by becoming and remaining ready. Jesus gives us five specific things to do that will help to ready us for the time when the Lord calls us. It is not an exhaustive list, for no single passage of Scripture is the whole of Scripture, but these are some very practical and specific things to reflect upon and do.

I.  Reassess your wealth. Jesus says, Do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your belongings and give alms. Provide money bags for yourselves that do not wear out, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven that no thief can reach nor moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.

In this passage, the Lord is giving us three teachings on wealth. He says that we ought to do these things:

        • Forgo Fear. In the end, it is fear that makes us greedy and worldly; we grab up the things of this world because we are afraid of not having enough for tomorrow. But what if we could receive the gift to trust God more and to know that He will give us our daily bread? He has given us the Kingdom; why wouldn’t He give us everything else? He may not give us everything we want, but He will give us what we really need. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be given unto to you (Matt 6:21). If we can just allow God to diminish our fear, we will be surprised at how easy it is to be generous with what we have rather than hoarding it.
        • Forward your Fortune. When we are generous to the needy and poor, we store up treasure for ourselves in Heaven. Treasure is not stored in Heaven by sending it up there in a rocket ship or a hot-air balloon. It is accomplished by generously distributing our wealth to others in wise and creative ways. I discussed this more fully in my homily last week (You Can’t Take It with You, but You Can Send It on Ahead). While it may not be appropriate to sell everything and go sleep on a park bench, the Lord is surely telling us to be less attached to and passionate about money and possessions, for they root us in this world. And where our treasure is, there also will our heart be.
        • Fix your focus. Our focus is misplaced because most of us have our treasure here in this world. Once we become less fearful and more generous, our obsession with worldly treasure subsides and our joy in heavenly treasure grows. This redirects our focus and puts our heart where our treasure really is and ought to be: in Heaven with God. Simplify! Be less rooted in this world; come to experience that your greatest treasure is God and the things awaiting you in Heaven.

Reassess your wealth. What is it and where is it? That will tell you a lot about your heart.

II. Ready yourself to work. The Lord says Gird your loins,which is the ancient equivalent of “roll up your sleeves.” The Lord has work for us to do and wants us to get to it.

Surely, the Lord has more than a worldly career in mind. He has in mind things like growing in holiness, pursuing justice, and raising children in godly fear. The Lord wants us to work in His Kingdom. We must commit to prayer, Sunday worship, the reception of the sacraments, obedience, and holiness.

The Lord has particular work for each of us based on our gifts. Some people are good teachers; others work well with senior citizens; some are entrepreneurs who can provide employment for others at a just wage. Some are skilled at medicine and the care of the sick; others are called to priesthood or the religious life. Some are called to suffer and to offer that suffering for the salvation of souls. Some serve in strength, others do so in weakness; but all are called to serve, to work.

Work with what the Lord gave you to advance His Kingdom. Part of being ready means doing your work.

III. Read the Word. The Lord says, light your lamps.

On one level, the phrase “light your lamps” is simply a symbol for readiness (e.g., the Wise and Foolish Virgins in Matt. 25:1-13).

But in another sense, a lamp is also a symbol for Scripture. For example, You 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).

The Lord is teaching us that an essential part of being ready is being rooted and immersed in the Scriptures and the teachings of the Church. That makes sense, of course. Too many in this increasingly secular world are hostile to the faith. How can we think that our mind is going to be anything but sullied if we are not reading Scripture every day? How will our minds be sober and clear if we are inebriated by the world?

Clearly, being ready means reading Scripture each day and basing our life on it.

IV. 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 that we might do when waiting for a bus: we just sit there and look down the street. There is another kind that is more active. Consider a waiter: he waits and watches actively; he observes and delivers what is needed immediately and notes what will be needed soon so that he will be prepared when the time comes.

There is also the eager sort of waiting that is much like that of a child on Christmas Eve. The child does not wait in dread for Santa Claus but in hopeful expectation.

Watchful and eager waiting are what the Lord has in mind. It is like that active waiting we do when we have invited a guest to our home. We joyfully prepare and place all in order.

To set our house in order is to sweep clean our soul of sin and all unrighteousness (by God’s grace) and to remove all the clutter of worldliness from our life. Regular confession, daily repentance, simplifying our life,  and freeing ourself from worldly attachments declutters the house of our soul.

Have you prepared the home of your soul for the Lord’s arrival? If not, you may experience Him as you would a thief. The Lord is not really a thief, for everything belongs to Him, but if we have not renounced our worldliness and greed and have not rid ourself of attachments to this world, then the Lord will come and take back what is His. He will seem like a thief only because we (wrongly) think things belong to us.

It’s never a good idea to call God, the Lord and owner of all, a thief!

V. 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, in which the Lord prepares a meal and feeds us. He 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). Today, food can be bought on the spur of the moment and eaten immediately, but in the ancient world one of life’s most pleasant things was a leisurely meal enjoyed in the company of good 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? One of the stranger things about people in the modern world, even some believers, is that they talk so little of Heaven. And while it is not a place any of us have ever been (so it’s hard to fully understand what it will be like), we should reflect often on the joy that awaits us there.

Part of being ready to go home to the Lord is to long for that day to come. When we want to do something, we prepare for it eagerly; we are motivated and we make sacrifices. We will more naturally do whatever is necessary.

These are five elements constituting a recipe for readiness. You’d better set your house in order ’cause He may be comin’ soon!

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On Forsaking Fear by Remaining Ready—A Homily for the 19th Sunday of the Year

On the Role of the Angels at the Second Coming

Gustave Doré (1868)

This is the last in a series of five posts on the role of the angels in our lives and in creation. The content of these posts comes from a series I have been teaching at the Institute of Catholic Culture on the mission of the angels. Angels are ministering spirits mystically present and active throughout creation, in the events of Scripture, in the liturgy, and in our lives.

The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in my posts are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions.

I encourage you to read Cardinal Danielou’s book. It is relatively short (a mere 114 pages) and packed with stirring and edifying accounts of the works of the angels according to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.

In this last post we consider the role of the angels at the parousia (the second coming) and the glory that awaits those who have been faithful.

The final chapters in the Cardinal’s book, on the eschaton (the last things) and the parousia, are particularly magnificent. I would like to distill them here, adding some material and reworking it just a bit. However, the assembling of the material is fundamentally his. I hope you will be stirred with as much joy and zeal in reading this as I was in preparing it.

We must soberly admit our need to be ready, by God’s grace. If we are, what glories await us! The “great and terrible day of the Lord” will indeed be great for those who have allowed the Lord to prepare them.

Sending forth the multitude of angels

Scripture is replete with descriptions of the role of angels in the great second coming of the Lord. In the Gospel of Matthew there is a text that may refer to 70 A.D. but surely also describes the end of time:

Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other (Matt 24:30-31).

The First Letter to the Thessalonians says,

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise … (1 Thess 4:16).

St. Cyril describes the extraordinary magnificence given to the final judgment by the presence of the multitude of angels. He considers how the great depth and breadth of the spiritual world has been invisible up to this point except to the eyes of faith; at the final judgment it is suddenly made manifest! Cyril asks us to imagine the multitude of angels by considering all the human beings who have ever existed, from the time of Adam to the present day, standing before the Lord Jesus. Then he asks us to consider that the angels are vastly more numerous than that, for they are the ninety-nine sheep while humanity is the one! As Daniel poetically says,

Thrones were set up and the Ancient of Days took his throne. His clothing was white as snow, the hair on his head like pure wool; His throne was flames of fire, with wheels of burning fire. A river of fire surged forth, flowing from where he sat; Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him, and myriads upon myriads stood before him (Dan 7:9-10).

Waking the dead (the angels are surely part of this)

The Second Sibylline Book, a Christian work, describes the archangels shattering the gates of death and raising up the bodies of even those who had been drowned in the sea or devoured by savage beasts (Sib, 2:214–235).

St. Ephrem speaks of the angels as waking the dead, saying,

Then the Lord will appear in the heavens like lightning with an unspeakable glory. The Angels and the Archangels will go on before his glory like flames of fire, like a mighty torrent. The Cherubim will turn their faces and the Seraphim will fly ahead crying out in fear: “Arise, you who sleep. Behold the bridegroom is coming!” Then the tombs will be opened and in the flash of an eye all the people will rise and behold the beauty of the Bridegroom.

St. Paul says that our bodies will rise, but they will be gloriously transformed:

He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body by the power that enables him also to bring all things into subjection to himself (Phil 3:21).

So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power (1 Cor 15:42).

The judgment by Christ and its execution by the angels

Matthew 13 describes the angels as separating the wicked from the just:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father (Mat 14:41-43).

Matthew 25 describes the angels as being with Christ when He takes His judgment seat:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt 25:31-32).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem speaks of the angels leading the sinners away, body and soul, “in the full sight of the armies of heaven and they will be unable to escape. But the angels are also uniting the just.”

St. Ephrem describes the angels leading the elect to paradise:

Then the angels will come together from all sides and take up the holy and faithful people into the glory of the clouds above, to their meeting place with Christ.

Origen speaks of the angels escorting the blessed to paradise:

When … we have begun to enter the holy place and pass on to the promised land, those who are really holy and whose place is the Holy of Holies will make their way, supported by the angels and unto the tabernacle of God. … They will be carried on [the angels’] shoulders and raised up by their hands.

St. Paul seems to speak to the same glory when he writes to the Thessalonians,

The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The final ordering of the Kingdom

Of this final ordering, Scripture says,

The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under [Jesus’] feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he [the Father] is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be everything to everyone (1 Cor 15:26-28).

After rendering judgment, Jesus returns to His Father’s right, in the Holy of Holies

Jesus ascends there, with all the members of His Body (body and soul) joined to Him. He ascends to the throne as Unus Christus, amans seipsum (one Christ, loving Himself). Though co-equal to His Father in glory and majesty, He is delighted to hand over the Kingdom of His Body, the Church, to His Father, who is (as Father) the Principium Deitatis.

At this ascension, the Fathers ponder that the angels will make the same declaration, the heavens echoing with their cry:

Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates; and be lifted up, O ancient doors; that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory (Psalm 24: 7-10).

The transformation of all creation

The longing of creation for its share in the glorious freedom of the Children of God is prophesied through St. Paul:

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it [because of our sins]. But the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:19-23).

Now it comes! Heaven and earth are united, and creation receives its original glory and more, for the heavenly realities are now joined to the earth, beautifully restored and raised. Scripture says,

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev 21:1-5).

The joy and rest of the angels

Cardinal Danielou beautifully concludes,

On that day, the joy of the friends of the Bridegroom [the angels] will be complete. They have led to paradise the souls of the just who are entrusted to them. They have kept watch over their mortal remains. But [for now] they still await the day in which the Bridegroom will come to look for his Bride, when her beauty is finally perfect, in order to lead her into the House of his Father for the eternal wedding feast (p. 114).

Of this magnificent beauty St. Methodius says,

Oh dearly beloved, [the angels] burn to see the day of your marriage, all the angels Christ has called from heaven. They will come, O Lord, O Word, and they will carry with them mighty gifts, in their spotless robes.

Thus, we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:17).

The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” … He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all the saints (Rev 22:17; 20-21).

And thus the Scriptures end, with the longing of the Bride for unity with her Husband. Yes, the Bride, the Church, cries out to her beloved, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: On the Role of the Angels at the Second Coming