(Readings: Malachi 3:19-20; Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21: 5-19)
Introduction to Mass
The images in the readings today are apocalyptic images, images of the chaos and destruction which many of the authors of the books of the Bible associated with the end of the world. In the gospel passage Jesus also uses this imagery, but his main point is that times of disaster and persecution are an opportunity to bear witness to God and vision of life that God has communicated to us.
My brothers and sisters, to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries...
Until recently, and for a long time in countries like ours, people had been able to believe that they were living in an age of gradually mounting progress, politically and economically. The belief in progress - and the commitment to work to bring about improvements in people's working conditions, in housing and health and in the general quality of life - survived two world wars and lasted into the nineteen-sixties, when, as Harold Macmillan famously declared, "most of our people have never had it so good".
Macmillan, to be fair to him, actually went on to pose the question "can it last?", and certainly today the naive optimism of the 'sixties appears to have given way to a mood of greater pessimism and worry, a sense of disorientation and a loss of confidence in the future.
Some of the apocalyptic images in today's gospel passage - images of physical destruction, but also images of moral rupture and betrayal in our present reality - are echoed in the many sources of anxiety and unhappiness that afflict us now: everything from global warming to the spread of violent and anti-social behaviour or indeed the harmful consequences of permissive morality: exploitation, emotional insecurity, more widespread loneliness.
The Old Testament prophets were always very alert to signs of cultural and moral decline and Christ's language in the gospel today conjures up the sort of images that the prophets liked to use - images of a world hurtling towards ruin in one way or another and the need for God's people to hold fast, amid the ruin, to their faith and to their principles.
The readings this Sunday point us, as Jesus' followers, in a similar direction. If some great catastrophe strikes - and Christ certainly gives plenty of individual examples - he says: "that will be your opportunity to bear witness". Especially when the catastrophe includes the persecution of Christians, he says, "that will be your opportunity to bear witness".
To my mind there are two ways of "bearing witness" in severe circumstances which might seem to be opposed to each other but are actually complementary.
First there's what we might call the monastic option - the option of withdrawal. On many occasions during the long history of Christianity, sincere, committed, radical believers have concluded that the situation in society is so corrupt and so far removed from God's ways and God's values that they've simply left it, fled from of it.
This was the reaction of the men and women of the fourth and fifth centuries who fled to the desert, to live solitary lives of prayer and penance and material simplicity. Other people then who were disillusioned with the emptiness of their collapsing culture sought out these men and women for their wisdom and the depth of their knowledge of God, and eventually their monastic spirituality and way of life helped sow the seeds of a renewed, reformed society.
One modern writer, a convert to Catholicism, looking around at the state of our society, said that what we need now is another Saint Benedict - a new movement of withdrawal to form oases of Christian life and Christian values in the midst of the modern desert.
That's the first way of bearing witness. The second way is what we might perhaps call the evangelising option. This is the decision of ordinary believers, of church leaders and Christian thinkers not to withdraw, but to remain firmly within society and culture and to constantly put forward Christian answers and Christian arguments, in the hope of converting as many people as possible to the whole Christian way of life.
In the past and in other parts of the world today this sometimes demands physical courage but most of the time, in our circumstances now, it's more likely to demand moral courage - the courage to stick up for beliefs and values which are increasingly met with incomprehension or ridicule or anger.
We know that in our type of culture now Christians won't invite trouble as long as they remain within certain boundaries: the relief of material poverty, caring for those who are distressed in some way. That kind of effort dovetails with the high value that modern society places on material well-being.
But when it comes to issues like abortion, marriage, homosexuality, and areas of modern medicine such as fertility treatment, embryo experimentation, or even surgery to enhance physical attractiveness rather than to cure disease, traditional Christian principles often incur deep anger and opposition, so it's beginning to require courage to profess them.
The truth is, of course, that we've always got to careful to bear witness to the whole faith. We've always got to put forward the social aspects of the gospel, that touch on poverty and wealth, on divisions of social class, on the power of the state and so on: the tradition of Catholic social teaching has plenty to offer on these themes. But we also have to put forward our ideals of personal morality, Christian principles in areas where now, it seems, many of the new political interest groups would like to deny us the freedom to speak altogether.
Those are the reflections that came into my mind reading the passages of Scripture that we have for this Sunday's Mass, and those are some of the ways that I think Christ's remarks have a point of reference for us now, and where we need to read the signs of the times in a culture which is beginning to show greater willingness to discriminate against anyone who professes the Christian vision of life in its totality.