The City of God
(Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48)
Introduction to Mass
In the second reading, the author of the letter to the Hebrews tells his readers to put their faith in the "realities that at present remain unseen". Then, in the gospel, Christ tells his followers to see themselves as belonging to God's Kingdom rather than the present, passing world. Both of them see the world that we live in as a place of false values from which we can liberated only by turning to God and placing ourselves under his rule.
So for the times when we've lost sight of that, we ask God to forgive us and to strengthen our faith.
There are many passages in the New Testament that give the impression that the first communities of Christians expected the end of the world to come during their own lifetime.
Saint Paul went about his missionary work, founding as many church communities as he could, as quickly as he could, because he had a sense that time was short - running out. Jesus himself often used the apocalyptic language and the apocalyptic images that were popular at the time - he seemed to come back several times to the idea that the present world is passing away, that there's a judgement coming, and that everyone had better get themselves ready.
"Stand ready," he says, "because the Son of man is coming at an hour you don't expect".
This language, and this way of preaching, wasn't just about predicting the end of the world. It wasn't even mainly about that. What the apocalyptic preachers – including Jesus - wanted to do was to encourage people to have a certain outlook, a certain attitude, and to adopt a certain kind of behaviour.
They wanted their listeners to see the next life - when we'll be much more fully in communion with God than we ever will be while we're still here on earth - as more real, and more important, than their present life. They wanted them to be detached from, or even to reject, a lot of the preoccupations and diversions that take up their time and energy, in order to concentrate on preparing for that future life with God. And they wanted them to anticipate their future life by the way they live in the present.
A lot of people now, for example, seem to live against a horizon which consists almost totally of their own material aspirations - their family, the school they want for their children, the look of their house, their holidays, what they do to fill up their leisure time, and so on. For some people, absorption in themselves and their own plans is inexhaustible and they concentrate on their own narrow interests with a passion.
But of course, if they thought that the world was going to end some time soon, and some kind of judgement was coming, most of these interests would lose their significance. And in the earliest days that's what the first groups of Christians were like.
They took almost literally these instructions of Jesus about standing ready for the Second Coming. And while they were waiting, they lived in a spirit of detachment from the world around them, with all the greed, self-seeking and power-politics that make the so-called "real world" go round.
In those first decades of the Church's history, when the books of the New Testament were still being written, the most important thing about the Second Coming of Christ was that it didn't happen - or rather, it would be more accurate to say that it hasn't happened yet.
The longer the first Christians waited, therefore, and the more it became obvious that the end of the world wasn't going to happen as soon as they thought, the more they had the problem of how to make sense of all this apocalyptic sentiment that their Scriptures were full of. And we have to make sense of it as well, because it applies as much to us, now, as it did to them, then.
My suggestion, for what it's worth, that the person who wrote the letter to the Hebrews, in the second reading, points us in the right direction.
The world we live in is fallen and lost, and the followers of Christ - if we're faithful to his vision - don't really belong there. In fact the more faithful we are to the values of God's Kingdom, the more we'll feel we don't really fit in with the world and its values.
While we are here, we're like the Old Testament characters, Abraham and his wife, Sarah: strangers or nomads on earth, to use the expression we had in the second reading, travellers in a foreign country.
The place we really belong, our real homeland, is the city founded and designed and built by God. But for now, we can only see that city in the far distance, and it's something we have to make an effort if we want to finally reach it.
If we really see ourselves as pilgrims travelling towards our real homeland, the City of God, obviously it has implications for how we conduct ourselves during our time of sojourn.
It means that whatever period of time Christians live in, or whatever kind of society they live in, there's always going to be a tension between how things are in the world and the principles of the gospel.
It means that the gospel message is always a reproach to the secular world, always a challenge to the customs and values of any society and culture. And for us it means that instead of clinging to various human institutions, which are fragile, and don't last, we look for security in the love and goodness of God, which last for ever.
It's not a question of the Church sealing itself off from the world around it. Christians must always respond practically to the instances of human misery and suffering that proliferate in a sinful world. People outside the Christian community can always come into it - and the people inside it can always fail, and fall.
But in a society like ours - acquisitive, violent, divided - it's essential for us to maintain the perspective of eternity: we're only passing through, on our way to the City of God. And while we're passing through, we have to live already as citizens of that City, distinct from a world which, for the most part, rejects God and lives without him.
So to my mind that's the ongoing relevance of these apocalyptic passages of the Bible. They remind us that we don't find our ultimate purpose within the limits of this life or within the values of worldliness. We're the "little flock" that Jesus talks about at the start of that passage, with our own distinct identity and direction, waiting patiently - but ready at a moment's notice - for God to usher us into the fullness of his life.