Christ’s Second Coming: Be Hopeful! Be Watchful!

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Nov. 14-15, 2009
Dan 12:1-3; Ps 16:5, 8-11; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32

Every Sunday, we confess in the Creed that our Lord Jesus Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. When you think of Jesus’ Second Coming, what comes to your mind?

  • Do you think of the bumper sticker that reads, “In case of Rapture, this car will be unmanned”? And do you imagine those who follow Jesus disappearing from cars and planes and houses, suddenly gone, while everyday life mostly goes on?
  • Or, do you imagine the great disasters in movies like “Armageddon” or “2012,” with famous buildings blown up, and bridges smashed, and California dumped into the ocean, and earthquakes and tidal waves, and maybe even an invasion of alien robots from outer space?
  • Do you think of those Protestant groups that make up complicated charts and timelines as they try to match up prophecies with contemporary events, and predict exactly who will do what, when?
  • Or do you think of the tongue-in-cheek t-shirt that reads, “Jesus is coming: everyone look busy!”

Today is the second-last Sunday in the liturgical year; and it is the last Sunday that we will hear a reading from the Gospel of Mark, in Year B of the lectionary cycle. In today’s reading, Jesus has reached Jerusalem. It is the early part of Holy Week. His Passion and death are rapidly approaching, just a few days away. His disciples have been admiring the great Temple in Jerusalem; and so Jesus spends the whole 13th chapter of Mark telling them what to expect in the future. This is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse,” in contrast to the Book of Revelation being called the “Great Apocalypse.” Our gospel reading today comes near the end of that 13th chapter.

And so today we are drawn into this topic that can seem strange and complicated and scary—a topic that, in recent decades, has been called “eschatology,” the study of the last things. But doesn’t this topic really belong to people who wear tin foil hats and build bomb shelters in the mountains? Or who walk the sidewalks of New York with long beards and big sandwich boards that read, “The End is Near!” Looking out at the congregation this morning, I don’t see any tin foil hats or sandwich boards. What do Jesus’ words have to do with us?

In order to hear what Jesus has to say to us, we would do well to first clear out some misunderstandings that might get in the way. For example, what about the “Rapture”—the idea that Jesus will first come back in an unseen way and remove the Church from the world, while everyday life then continues for at least a few more years, before he returns publicly? This idea of the “Rapture” has never been part of Catholic teaching. It is not in the Bible; it has never been taught by the Orthodox; or even by Protestants, until a few Protestants thought it up about 200 years ago. Since then, it has grown in the popular imagination, perhaps especially with the successful sales of the “Left Behind” novels. But when Jesus tells us that the Son of Man will come in the clouds with great power and glory, and gather his elect from the four winds, it will be public and final, like lightning that lights up the whole sky at once, as he says elsewhere [Luke 17:24]; not like this idea of the unseen “Rapture.”

We also would do well to look at history to make sure we recognize events that may have already happened. When we do so, we discover the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., about 40 years after Jesus was speaking. At that time, the Jewish people rebelled against the Roman Empire, which then laid siege to Jerusalem and conquered it. More than 1 million Jews died, while the historian Josephus tells us that only 30,000 survived. And when the Romans entered the city, they did destroy the Temple stone by stone, just as Jesus predicted at the beginning of the chapter. All of this took place about 40 years after Jesus predicted it—while some of the generation of his time was still living. When we identify these events that were fulfilled in 70 A.D., we can see more clearly which events are still to come.

We should also take care that we do not get our response backwards. Jesus’ promise to return is good news for us, and we should receive it with joy. But there have been times in the Church’s history when people’s response to the Second Coming and the events that will precede it has been fear. One reason for that may have been that painters discovered that the terrible catastrophes predicted were much more fun to paint than the returning Jesus; just as today’s movie-makers similarly find it fun to pull out all the special effects to depict disasters. But we should not overemphasize these details and miss the point of Jesus’ message. His point is not simply that terrible things are coming; but that, when those terrible things come, we should not be discouraged; we should not be afraid.

So, having cleared away some misunderstandings, we can again ask: What do Jesus’ words about his Second Coming have to do with us?

First, Jesus urges us to hope and not fear. This is a message that we need. We need it in the midst of everyday difficulties, such as the challenges of living out the relationship of marriage, or the difficulties of raising children in today’s society. We need it as we face the difficulties of working at our jobs day after day; or of having no job and looking for one. We also need this message when bigger changes occur: when widespread prosperity turns to recession; when peace is broken by terrorism and war; when religious liberty gives way to religious persecution, as we may see more and more in the coming years in our country.

When these things happen, Jesus’ message to us is to not be afraid; that these things were not unexpected; they are not beyond his control; we have not been forgotten; we have not been left alone. He may not explain to us exactly why each difficult thing happens; but, by opening our eyes just enough, he helps us to understand that what is going on is not just the small struggle that we can see, but a much larger battle that we might only see just a little.

St. Paul tells us [Eph 6:12] that “our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness.” It may seem that we are losing the small struggle; when in fact, by God’s grace, we are winning the bigger battle. It may seem that our efforts to build something good, in the service of God and man, are failing; when in fact our efforts are succeeding for eternity. The Second Vatican Council taught [Gaudium et spes, 39] that:

…after we have obeyed the Lord, and in His Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured, when Christ hands over to the Father: “a kingdom eternal and universal, …

When we build in our souls and others’ souls, faith, hope, and love, and other virtues, these will last eternally, no matter what disasters should befall this world.

Not only should we have courage in this struggle, but we can rejoice that it will only last so long. The day will come that Jesus will return, and, as the second reading tells us, his enemies will be made his footstool; when he will gather his elect from the four winds. As the days darken around us, the Second Coming of Christ is a bright hope in the future—as bright as, or indeed brighter than, the wonderful sunlight we enjoy today after several days of cloud and rain.

So the first principle is hope; and the second is watchfulness. Jesus tells us, “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” So he tells us that one event is the sign of another, and urges us to watch.

Does this mean that we should turn to making charts and timelines and trying to predict exactly who will do what, when? No. For he also tells us, “of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” It is not for us to try to work out the exact timing. And what are the signs that he lists off earlier in the chapter? Wars and reports of wars … Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes … there will be famines. He also describes persecution against those who follow him, and division in their families over him. All of these signs we see most of the time! And perhaps that is the point: that all of these painful events should remind us to be watchful and alert for his coming.

So, oddly enough, of all those examples I listed off at the beginning, that t-shirt comes closest to getting it right. Except that “everyone look busy” obviously won’t cut it with the King of Kings! We have to truly be ready to meet him.

Suppose I was able to say with certainty: Jesus will be here in 5 minutes. Would you feel ready? Are there certain things you would want to do in those 5 minutes to get ready? Jesus’ message to us is that, those things that we would want to do to get ready, we should do now—not to put it off until the last minute, for we cannot know when that last minute will be, whether it be the last minute before his Second Coming, or the last minute before our own death, if that should come first. Right after today’s gospel reading, Jesus says: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come. … May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to all: ‘Watch!'”

So what does Jesus’ Second Coming have to do with us? It is a message of hope and encouragement in difficult, dark days; and it is an urging to be watchful and alert when events around us might lull us to sleep. And so we pray, with the Church of all generations, “thy kingdom come.” We pray “marana tha: come, Lord Jesus!”

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As a musical accompaniment to this homily, I would recommend the praise song “Days of Elijah.” While I might quibble with some of its words here and there, the overall feeling and image presented by the song is right on.

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Published in: on November 15, 2009 at 11:12 am  Leave a Comment  
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