33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
2006


Apocalyptic spirituality
(Readings: Daniel 12:1-13; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32)
Introduction to Mass
This Sunday is the second last Sunday in the Church's calendar, and at the end of every liturgical year the readings for Sunday Mass consist of passages from Scripture that are full of apocalyptic visions and warnings. The basic message of apocalyptic preaching is: the world is coming to an end - soon. Soon God will be making his final judgement about who will be entering eternal life with him and who will be sent, as the prophet Daniel puts it, to "shame and everlasting disgrace" instead.
To begin Mass, then, let's ask ourselves how far we've put our lives in order so as to receive God's favourable rather than negative judgement when it comes.
Homily
The images in the first reading and in the gospel are very similar, and it might be useful to say something quickly about the original background to this type of vivid preaching about some great future "time of distress".
It arose basically from the experience of actual disaster in the Chosen People's history: foreign invasion, deportation of the population, the desecration of their religious buildings and their contents - the complete destruction of society.
This was a great trauma for the whole community, a disorientating experience. And in those circumstances the response of the prophetic preacher was to abandon any idea of salvaging the whole society and to appeal instead for a minority - a remnant - to remain faithful to God and to carry on practising their faith in whatever improvised way they can manage in the circumstances.
Often, in the preaching of the Old Testament prophets, before Daniels' time, there's the idea that the disaster will eventually pass and the minority, the remnant, will form the basis of a new, reconstructed, re-dedicated People of God.
The threats and prophecies of doom were only the first half of the prophets' message. Their final emphasis was always on hope for the future, the possibility of emerging from disaster with a revived and purified faith in God. Their preaching was an appeal for people to start cultivating a purified faith in God as soon as possible so as to lay the foundations for the future.
But by the time we come to Daniel and then Jesus, less than two hundred years later, the apocalyptic preachers had stopped envisaging a future period in worldly history. Now they're looking forward to the end of history and the beginning of the next life - the final coming God's Kingdom, in the language of the gospels.
As we just heard both Daniel and Jesus see the main significance of the end-time in the fact that it'll be the time of God's final judgement.
There will be a great separation: the people who have lived in conformity with God's commandments will enter into the fulness of salvation. Individuals who have only lived for themselves, who remain hardened in a completely self-seeking stance, will be barred from sharing God's life in eternity.
I don't think we can deny that Jesus regarded this prospect of final judgement, and the possibility of either redemption or damnation, as an important aspect of his whole message, and he often appealed to people in vivid and urgent language to stand ready, to prepare themselves, and to live in such a way that they might confidently face God's judgement if the end of the world were to happen tomorrow.
We don't have to be literal-minded about the lurid and violent images of the "time of distress". But the core meaning of apocalyptic preaching is something that we should take seriously and our spirituality as Christian believers and disciples should always have an apocalyptic aspect.
Christian spirituality should always be conscious, for example, that the purpose of human life doesn't lie, ultimately, within this world. We're destined for eternity, and that means an authentic Christian spirituality never places an ultimate value on anything that belongs to this world: material wealth, the achievements of worldly power or social status, even the emotional ties that naturally mean so much to us. At the end, we leave them all behind.
Religion, then, for us, properly understood, is more of a journey towards our final destination: fulness of life with God. Our life on earth is an opportunity to render our duties towards God, the source of everything that exists. It's not a matter, as religion seems to have been re-construed in modern consumer culture, as a sort of pleasant pastime, a set of vague activities that foster human warmth and community spirit.
Secondly, the apocalyptic dimension of Christian faith should help to make us aware that our life could end at any time. Every day we should live, as Jesus implies, as though we might meet God before we reach the end of it.
This has always been an aspect of genuine Christian spirituality: that life is short and the hour of death unknown, as we say in the prayers of the funeral service. Many people used to say prayers before going to bed at night made explicit reference to the prospect of death, and they asked God to be merciful and to receive them into his company if they died before the morning.
Again, you can get the impression that many church people now don't give much serious thought to the prospect of their own death or anyone else's, and are spiritually ill-prepared to face it when it happens, especially when it happens suddenly.
A third aspect of apocalyptic spirituality which is valuable is that it encourages us to interpret disasters and catastrophes in the light of our faith in God.
In the early centuries of the Church's history many men and women got so weary of the corrupt state of society that they withdrew to the remote desert areas to spend their lives in prayer and reflection, searching for God and preparing to meet God. This was their response to the disaster of a society in terminal decline: to concentrate their energies more single-mindedly on God.
Nearer our own time, after the end of the Second World War, there was a surge in applications to the contemplative orders of men and women because having witnessed the destruction and cruelty of the War, many people became very reflective about the purpose of life and life after death. Again, this had an apocalyptic tenor to it: reacting to disaster with a more careful fostering of spiritual life.
We can ask ourselves: how do we follow these examples in the collapsing culture of our own time? It's certainly right that Christians should line up with other people to protest - for example - about unjust wars, threats to civil liberties, efforts to create a political climate that tolerates torture and brutality, the destruction of the environment, and so on. These are the apocalypses of our own day.
But at the same time let's not underrate the value of small, individual gestures. The person who responds to the corruption of surrounding society by quietly saying his or her prayers every day, by refusing to go along with dishonest practices in the workplace, by living simply and renouncing the whole indulgent philosophy of consumerism, is also getting ready for God's judgement in the way Jesus invites us to.
A lot of these small actions might seem futile to people with no faith, but for us it's a question of doing what God wants, not what impresses other people or achieves "results". The real significance of our small efforts of faith is often hidden and goes unnoticed. But they're no less valuable for that.
Last of all, let's not lose sight of the fact that the main emphasis of apocalyptic preaching is hope, not disaster, God's love and will to save, not anger at human sinfulness. If we genuinely treat our lives here and now as a preparation for our future destiny, and behave accordingly, there should be no need to worry about God's negative judgement. But it's surely also true that we can't behave selfishly, cruelly, blindly towards other people's suffering, and expect God not to discriminate against us.
So those are my reflections on the Mass readings this Sunday and my thoughts about how we can apply the Bible's teaching about the end of the world and God's judgement to our own efforts to live our Christian faith.