The End of the World
Thirty-Third Sunday of the Year. Mal 3:19-20a; Ps 98:5-9; 2 Thes 3:7-12; Lk 21:5-19
Today’s readings approaching the end of the liturgical year begin to focus on the theme of the end of the world. The Prophet Malachi in today’s First Reading describes a Day of Judgment in which the coming of daylight, the rising of the sun, brings a blazing furnace to evildoers, but ‘healing rays’ to those who fear the Lord’s name. In the Gospel, Jesus combines two themes: in the near future, a prophecy of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and, in the more distant future, a prophecy of the events preceding the end of the world. It is these themes I would like to explore in today’s brief homily.
First, with regard to the near future, in 70AD, forty years after the Jesus’ words, four Roman legions under the future emperor Titus, besieged, conquered and razed much of the city of Jerusalem. In one of the most traumatic events in the history of the Jewish people, the Temple itself was torn down, as Jesus had warned, so that there was not left ‘a stone upon another stone’. All that is believed to remain of the structure today is not the Temple itself, but part of the edge of the great platform built by Herod; today this is called the Western or Wailing Wall. With no place of sacrifice, the Jewish priesthood also came to an end. For those seeking a meaning to such an apparent disaster, such a cataclysmic event might simply stand forever as a grim moral warning against hubris. The Jerusalem Temple at the time of Christ was one of the wonders of the ancient world; its destruction could be interpreted merely as one of many object lessons showing that even the greatest human achievements can quickly be swept away. For the early Christians, however, the significance of the destruction of the Temple was essentially spiritual. With the new and final covenant, God had brought the earlier, preparatory phase of salvation history to a close. In place of the sacrifices of animals, God had provided a new sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. In place of the Order of Aaron, God had established a new priesthood of the Order of Melchizedek, what we today call the Catholic priesthood. In place of the one Temple, God had provided many places to offer the new sacrifice, the Sacrifice of the Mass. Indeed, although it is hard to give a precise measure, the Sacrifice of the Mass is probably being offered in about a third of a million different churches this Sunday in almost every country of the world, including our own church of St. Ambrose. So the faith of the Jewish people over so many centuries has bourne fruit in the most unexpected way among the Gentiles. This is also the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of Malachi (1:11), “From the rising of the sun to its setting [from ‘East to West’] my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts.” This pure offering to which the prophet referred is Jesus Christ himself, not offered in only one location, only one Temple, but now in every place among the nations.
However, Jesus’ prophecy not only refers to an event in our past, the destruction of the Temple, but also to those in our future. When questioned, he speaks of the wars, natural disasters, signs and persecutions that will precede the end of the world. Now, when talking about the end of the world there is an important warning that must always be kept in mind. For the last two thousand years, many people have claimed to predict the actual time of the end based on their reading of Scripture. However, these people do not really know Scripture, or at least they have not properly understood today’s Gospel. Jesus explicitly warns, “See that you not be deceived, for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he,’ and ‘the time has come.’ Do not follow them!” In commenting on this, St Augustine confirms that we are entirely ignorant about whether the end of the world will be within any given number of years, whether ten thousand or twenty thousand, or within two or three. If we did know, it would do us harm rather than good. If, therefore, anyone appears saying that the end is at hand, do not follow them. Nevertheless, the sense of living within the last days is not an entirely mistaken instinct. Christians in every age from the first century until today have experienced wars, natural disasters, signs and persecutions, all of which are prefigurements of the end times. What these do at least serve to remind us of is that this world is finite. This world is of the greatest importance as the place and opportunity of our salvation, but it will come to an end. Our task is to repent and be spiritually fruitful in the time that is given to us.
Fr. Andrew Pinsent, St. Ambrose Church, 18th November 2007
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.