My second installment of a sermon on the Sunday readings. This one was much, much harder. Even though I started preparing last Tuesday, it did not come together until today at mass. The opening hymn was Gather Us In, one of my favorite, if not my absolute favorite modern hymn. I chose it for the processional hymn for my mother’s funeral last year. Singing it today, particularly the verse about “the bread of new birth”, led me to the conclusion of my homily.
In today’s gospel we read the conclusion of Jesus’ apocalyptic discourse in Marks’ gospel. As we come to the end of the liturgical year–next Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, and in two weeks Advent begins–the Church turns our attention to the end times. Or more precisely, to the end of this world, and the advent of the world to come. These are important things to consider. The Creed, which we recite weekly, mentions them twice. First, we profess that
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
And we conclude with our belief that
I look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.
To the early Christians, these were pressing concerns: they felt that the “end times” we immanent and they could expect to see the terrors that Jesus described come to pass. Today, almost 2000 years after Jesus spoke, they have become less immediate. We have a longer view of time: the Earth is not 6,000 but rather 5 billion years old, and the most recent estimates of physicists place its end at least a billion years in the future. For many people, against such a time scale the end of the world recedes comfortably out of view.
This is not true of everyone, however. Among evangelical Protestants and certain Catholic circles, there remains an intense interest (if not unhealthy obsession) with the end times. In certain secular circles, legitimate concerns about the very real dangers of climate change have morphed into apocalyptic visions of the end of humanity. We should not, however, conflate these with the “end times” foretold by Jesus. In the Bible, the end times mark the culmination of God’s creation, the final stage in a design that began when, “In the beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth” (Gen 1:1). The destruction of the Earth and the end of humanity at our own hands is not part of God’s design. It would be the product of sin, the result of our rejection of the command to be good stewards of His creation.
Nevertheless, we cannot and should not ignore or skip over these dark and enigmatic prophesies. Because, despite what I just said, each one of us will see them. We will witness the moon and stars going dark, we will be there when the powers of heaven are shaken. And we will see the Son of Man coming in glory. The language may be allegorical, but the events described will be real. We will be there because at the end of human history, at the culmination of God’s creation, the dead will rise up. As the prophet Daniel said in the first reading, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake.” We believe, as the Creed says, “in the resurrection of the dead.”This is both a comforting and unsettling belief. It is a great comfort, because it tells us that, contrary to what our senses tell us, death is not the end. As we pray in the funeral liturgy, “life is changed, not ended” and, as we say in the Creed, “we look for…the life of the world to come.” Our lives have meaning: they are not ” a tale told by an idiot, a sound and fury signifying nothing.” Just as the end times mark the culmination of God’s creation, they mark the culmination of our lives. We will see the end of the old world, but we will also experience the new. As St. John wrote in the book of Revelation, we “will see the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:2).
While a great comfort, this should also give us pause. For this is not only the end of this world, but the time for its judgment. We will see as the Gospel says, the “Son of Man coming on the clouds of glory” and he will, as the creed affirms, “judge the living and the dead.” And Daniel makes the outcome of this judgment clear: “some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.”
We often avoid the implications of this passage in two ways. First, we think of ourselves as the wise “who shine brightly” in heaven. We are here, in church—therefore, we are among the saved. Second, we reserve the pains of Hell for “sinners.” This may be a vague, nebulous category filled with “evil people” we cannot really identify, or it is filled with those sinners we particularly despise.
But if the last judgment is to have real meaning in our lives, it cannot only be for others: rather, we should focus on the fact that we ourselves will be judged: that the Lord will determine if we are to be numbered with the sheep or the goats. Sin and failure are realities in our lives, and we are lying to ourselves if try to hide from this fact.
That we will be judged is sobering, but should not be a cause for fear or despair. The fires of Hell exist, but God’s love and mercy also exist, and they are more powerful than our sins. In our creation we were intended for God. We may be marred by sin and mediocrity, but God wants us “to be like the stars, forever.” No matter what we have done, God will forgive us, if we have the courage to ask for his forgiveness. He is calling to each of us, offering us the grace we need to kneel before him and confess, as the Prodigal Son did, that “I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son [or daughter]”. And he is waiting to lift us up, embrace us and cry out, “let us rejoice and celebrate, for this child of mine was dead, but is alive again!”
The Eucharist which we are about to receive is a foretaste of this feast; it is the source of the grace we need to turn again to the Father; it is the source of the strength we need to journey through this life and to enter into the life of the world to come, where all things are made new.