18 November 2018
Some time ago an elderly friend of mine said to me that he was afraid of dying. ‘I am not sure when I meet my God if the books will be balanced in my favour or not’, he said. There are so many people like him who think that their performance on this earth will determine whether they will be found worthy of entering heaven or not. Sad to say so many people approach their final years as believers with this fear. They pick a few texts like those of today which determine their attitude.
Interestingly enough today’s texts are not mainly about causing fear about when the world will end. The only thing for sure is that Jesus will come at the end of time to gather his chosen ones. As St. Paul writes in 1 Timothy 2.4 “God wants everyone to be saved and to reach full knowledge of the truth”. If we take the total preaching of Jesus we will see that ultimately only God can give us his totally free, unmerited gift of salvation. We can of course refuse to accept God’s free gift by turning away from God. We can choose to reject God’s friendship. The one thing that is sure is that Jesus will come again at the end of time and will send his messengers to gather his chosen ones. We can be sure we are among his chosen ones if we try our best, despite our weaknesses.
Today’s readings can so easily be misinterpreted because it is a type of writing we are not familiar with, but which are familiar to our Jewish sisters and brothers. This kind of writing is called ‘apocalyptic’ coming from a Greek word meaning to unveil or reveal. So apocalyptic writers are trying to reveal to believers what has up to then remained hidden.They wish to reveal God’s secret. This kind of writing uses vivid visions to explain and once one knows the key to these images it is quite simple then. They are not to be taken literally. And history is always written after the events. Apocalyptic writers give the impression they are writing about things to come but in fact are writing about present events. So about that time, the enemies of Rome, the dreaded Parthians were attacking the frontiers of the empire. Within 40 years the terrible earthquakes took place including the famous one resulting in the volcanic destruction of Vesuvius. These events are what the images refer to. Finally the great temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This would have been unthinkable for the Jews of Jesus’ time and in fact the present chapter of Mark opens with the disciples amazed and obviously very impressed by the size and magnificence of the Temple building. Jesus tells them that the seeming indestructible temple, the centre of worship for the Jews would be destroyed. Maybe this is the whole point of today’s readings. The temple represented for the Jewish people the power and privilege of any system, religious or otherwise. It is a risk which is permanent. Religion and religious traditions can become so fixed long after they outlive their usefulness that vested interests may get rid of anyone who tries to change or even suggest change. This is what Jesus tried to do. In place of what was dead and not life-giving, like many aspects of the Sabbath or temple worship he wanted to offer a life-giving alternative. But it was too much for the religious leaders. To think about other possibilities is always risky. Better stay with the tried and trusted even when it is no longer life-giving. Is this why people leave the church?
Will we have the courage to look at our own religious practices and attitudes, either as individuals or as a group and see if they have not outlived their usefulness? Are there not many ‘traditions’ in our daily lives – and in our Church – that we need to let go of? Was this not one of the underlying issues at recent Synods in Rome? Jesus tells us today that nothing is permanent apart from the truth and that that will manifest itself differently for different ages. So what are the signs of the times in our lives, in my life and yours? What is not life-giving? The Good News today is that Jesus came to liberate us from all forms of enslavement, religious or otherwise. If we believe we are saved by his totally free choice of us then we will have the freedom to respond to the new initiatives of the Holy Spirit. As creatures of habit, this is not at all easy for us.
Finally, the gospel invites us to let go of all foolish attempts at predicting the time or date of the Second Coming of Jesus. In the gospel today he says that not even he as a human being knows – only the Father alone knows. A bit like speculations in Ireland about the date of the next election. Only the Taoiseach [Prime Minister] knows that! These pictorial words today of Jesus’ Second Coming give us neither a map of eternity or a timetable for the future. But the one thing we must retain is that Jesus did foretell that he would come again.
As we wait for Jesus to come again, may we work to build not so much stone temples but communities of love, of service, of sharing, of forgiveness. Then it won’t really matter when Jesus comes again. He will find us ready since we are doing his work. May the Lord give us the Holy Spirit to help us to focus on priorities and build a better world for our children and grandchildren, not forgetting the environment. Amen.
Edited from an original homily of Fr Jim Kirstein, SMA