In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the first Sunday of Advent, and as I mentioned last week, during this season Mother Church draws our attention, through the Scripture she holds before us in the lectionary, to the disclosure of God’s anointed within the world. In Biblical terms, this is the apocalypse, as I never grow weary of pointing out. And the reason we read these texts during Advent, as we begin to do this morning, is that we are preparing to greet the Lord’s liturgical revelation at the mass of his nativity, Christmas. Christmas is the day when we remember the birth of Jesus, and this birth of the only Son of God in the flesh is the event that makes him visible, and so “reveals” him to the world.
So Christmas is the first apocalypse, the first “revelation” of the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. And we live in an epoch between Christ’s two apocalypses. The apocalypse of his Nativity we know: the Old Testament prepared God’s people for it, and told them to expect it; the Gospels relate it to us, and we commemorate it year by year at Christmas. And the Lord addresses the second apocalypse, when he will come “with power and great glory” (v. 27), in today’s Gospel, and he speaks of the signs attending it.
Today’s Gospel brings an issue of timing to the fore. Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all has taken place,” (Luke 21.32). Skeptics have made much of this and a few similar passages in the New Testament. Many have said that it indicates that Jesus was talking about the destruction of the temple by the Roman general –later emperor – Titus, in the year AD 70. And consequently, that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after that event.
In the final analysis, its not clear precisely what Jesus meant by “this generation” passing away before “all has taken place.” St. Bede thought that, by “this generation,” Jesus meant humanity in general. Eusebius and Theophylact suggested that he meant the “generation” of Christians, the Church – i.e. that the Church will have to endure “what is coming on the world” before Jesus returns.
One of the main themes St. Paul addresses in his first letter to the Thessalonians – from which we read this morning – is the perplexity of the church at Thessalonica about when Jesus would return. In chapter 5, Paul says, in essence, that all we know is that the determined time will be a surprise:
“…as to the times and the seasons, brethren, you have no need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as travail comes upon a woman with child, and there will be no escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5.1-3)
The chronology of the Lord’s return is opaque in Scripture. And its opacity is, I believe, part of the point. It is as though history is all mixed up together by the Gospel, that both what is new and what is old is brought out of its treasure (cf. Matthew 13.52) and mingled together, that our Lord’s two apocalypses are somehow part of a single, contiguous reality which is at once already accomplished, and yet still on its way. Some of you know that I am a disciple of the French thinker Rene Girard. Concerning the apocalyptic themes of Luke’s Gospel, Girard said:
“One of the wonders of the texts is that they make it impossible to know whether or not they are speaking of Titus [and the destruction of the temple in AD 70]. However, historians mix everything up without even realizing that the mixture is part of what they are talking about, and that what they are talking about could not care less about them.” (from “Battling to the End”)
In any event, what keeps us from the Lord’s second Apocalypse, what keeps the world from ending, is the necessity that this Gospel be preached to all the nations (Mark 13.10) so that, as the Lord says in the chapter before today’s Gospel reading, “the time of the Gentiles” might be fulfilled – so that the whole world might have an opportunity to renounce its violence, to open its ears and hear the Word of God, to open its eyes and see its salvation.
Cardinal Newman spoke about this mixing up of history by the Gospel, by the events of the incarnation. He said:
“Once the Christ had come … had suffered, and had risen again … Earth had had its most solemn event, and seen its most august sight; and therefore it WAS the last time. And hence, though time intervene between Christ’s first and second coming, [this intervention of time] is not recognized… in the Gospel scheme, but is, as it were, an accident. For so it was, that up to Christ’s coming in the flesh, the course of things ran straight towards that end, nearing it by every step; but now, under the Gospel, that course has… altered its direction, as regards His second coming, and runs, not towards the end, but along it, and on the brink of it; and is at all times equally near that great event, which, did it run towards, it would at once run into. Christ, then, is ever at our doors; as near eighteen hundred years ago as now, and not nearer now than then; and not nearer when He comes than now. When He says that He will come soon, “soon” is not a word of time, but of natural order. This present state of things, “the present distress” as St. Paul calls it, is ever close upon the next world, and resolves itself into it. As when a man is given over, he may die any moment, yet lingers; as an implement of war may any moment explode, and must at some time; as we listen for a clock to strike, and at length it surprises us; as a crumbling arch hangs, we know not how, and is not safe to pass under; so creeps on this feeble weary world, and one day, before we know where we are, it will end.” (from “Parochial and Plain Sermons”)
“Between Christ’s Passion and his Second Coming, the Last Judgment, if you prefer, there will be this indefinite time which is ours, a time of increasingly uncontrolled violence, of refusal to hear, of growing blindness. This is the meaning of Luke’s warnings, and this shows their relevance. In this respect, Pascal says at the end of the twelfth Provincial Letter that ‘violence has only a certain course to run, limited by the appointment of Heaven.’”
But the question remains: what ought Christians to do in the face of the reality of the world’s impending doom? I should say, too, that there is no good in being obsessed with the end of the world, because the ends of our own individual worlds – we KNOW – are swiftly approaching. Yet, what are we to do? What OUGHT we to do? Jesus answers the question in the final verses of today’s Gospel:
“…take heed to 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 snare; for it will come upon all who dwell upon the face of the whole earth. But watch at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of man.” (Luke 21.34-36)
“Take heed…. Watch…. Pray….” Recollection & Prayer. That’s what enables us to see our world’s apocalyptic mess as a sign that our redemption is drawing near. The main way that Christians stay “recollected” is by participating in the mass, which from the beginning has been called a “memory” – or a “remembering” – of our Lord’s suffering and death. We must constantly set Jesus before the eyes of our spirit – by reading about him, by looking at images of him, and more than anything else, by praying to him, and to the Father through him and with him and in him. In this way, and ONLY in this way, in the midst of all the distress and perplexity of the nations, of the fainting, fear, and foreboding of men at what is coming on the world, will you be enabled, as the Savior said, to “look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near,” (Luke 21.28).
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.