A few months ago, I took a little vacation time. Nature has always been one of the primary ways that I feel a sense of God’s presence, and so I decided to head out west to visit a few national parks that had long been on my wish list. I always find that I gain a little perspective when I spend some time out among the ancient things of nature – the mountains, the desert, the wide-open sky. Our lives are full of so many changing realities; there is a sense of comfort and stability that comes from being in the midst of things that have been around for eons.
However, that perception – of permanence, stability – is really an illusion. Any geologist can tell you that the earth is constantly changing, shaped by both tectonic forces below and the elements above. Any astronomer can tell you that the stars in the night sky have lifespans, much longer than our own but nonetheless finite. The natural things of the world around us may seem permanent, but they are anything but. All that we see around us is ultimately transitory, created things which are passing away.
Our readings for this Sunday remind us of this fact if we had forgotten it. In this 33rd week of Ordinary Time, the second to last week of our liturgical year, our lectionary has taken an apocalyptic turn. The prophet Daniel speaks about a time of great trial and distress which ends with the resurrection of those who are dead, some to eternal life and some to “everlasting horror and disgrace.” In the Letter to the Hebrews, we hear how all things have been made subject to Jesus the High Priest, who at the right hand of God is bringing all of his enemies under his rule. Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples not to be caught off guard by the suddenness of what will happen – the Son of Man returning in glory to judge all things.
Gustave Doré, The Triumph of Christianity Over Paganism [detail] (c. 1868)
The passage we hear from the Gospel of Mark is actually the end of a longer passage in which Jesus describes how the end times will be marked by the dissolution of many of the things that seem to give order and structure to this reality: nations will rise up against up each other, kingdoms will fall, families will be split apart, even the earth itself will quake and become barren. Rather than describe particular occurrences that we can track as predictions, the point that Jesus is making is how everything that seems stable and permanent will be overturned. No doubt this is frightening, both for us and for Jesus’s listeners. What exactly are we to make of this dire prophecy? Where is the “Good News”?
Believe it or not, these readings are fundamentally readings about hope. At the end of the liturgical year – and then, immediately following, in the first few weeks of Advent – our readings are apocalyptic, not because the Church wants to frighten us but because it wants to remind us of what ultimately will last. We tend to think of that word, “apocalypse,” as the catastrophic end of all things. But that’s not really what the word means in Greek. “Apocalypse” is not mass destruction but rather is closer to our word “revelation.” It denotes a disclosure, a tearing away of the veil so that what truly is can be fully seen. For the Christian mindset, the Apocalypse is not the end of all things the fulfillment of all things – the true revealing of what actually and permanently is.
And what is it, in the end, that is the most fundamental reality? If nations and kingdoms will pass away, if families and relationships are to be upset and disrupted, if even the earth and sea and sky are going to pass away, what ultimately will last? Jesus says it plainly – the Son of Man, that is, he himself. In the Gospels, Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” whenever he intends to describe his role as the One sent by God as our Savior and Redeemer, the One who must suffer and be rejected, even to the point of death, but who in rising again will be given all power and authority in heaven and on earth. In the end, all of the other aspects of creation will be overturned, not for the sake of destruction but for the sake of revealing that in the end Christ alone will remain.
As I said, that is a message of hope. Why? Because we know intuitively that this world and this life are not permanent; at times, we are reminded of that fact in very sudden, very painful ways. Many of you know that this past week we suffered a loss here in our own parish community. One of our students, Connor Kordsmeier, who was active and among us just a week ago, passed away after a sudden illness. That sense of loss – and especially that sense of disruption, of being reminded so violently of the impermanence of this reality – can be really disorienting. It can shake our faith. What we need in these moments is the virtue of hope. Faith is the belief in things that we cannot yet see, but hope is the certain expectation of receiving those things that we believe in.
Whenever we suffer loss – whether it is the passing of a family or a friend, or something lesser, like a disappointment, a trial, a grievance, an expectation unfulfilled – we are reminded that this reality is not permanent, not lasting, but rather is the anticipation of a new reality that will one day be completely revealed. And at the center of that reality is Jesus, the only One who truly lasts, the only One who fulfills our desire for stability and permanence. When we renew our hope in the Son of Man – the One who has been given all power and authority, the One who will come again in glory – then we can bear with perseverance all of the sorrows and disappointments of this world, all of the disruptions and instabilities of this life, because we remember that nothing in the end will last that is not a part of Christ.
Let me give you just three quick ways that we can learn to place our hope in Christ, not in the world, on a daily basis.
- First, begin each day with a short prayer, offering to God everything that may happen to you that day – all of your experiences, all of the things you will do, all of your joys and all of your sorrows. When we do this, even the seemingly routine, mundane parts of our daily lives become something imbued with spiritual meaning.
- Second, make sure you are regularly receiving the sacrament of confession. We are all sinners, but the key to growing in our spiritual life is not to rely upon our efforts to become better but to turn to the sacrament of God’s mercy and healing, whenever we may need it.
- Third, try to keep in mind your own death every day. That may sound morbid, but for the Christian it shouldn’t be. Death, after all, is meeting God, and if we are living the way we should be, that should be a joy and not something to fear. St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Every action of yours, every thought, should be those of one who expects to die before the day is out. Death would have no great terrors for you if you had a quiet conscience… Then why not keep clear of sin instead of running away from death? If you aren’t fit to face death today, it’s very unlikely you will be tomorrow…”
St. Francis of Assisi in His Tomb by Francisco de Zurbarán (c. 1634)
Friends, in these days, there are a lot of reminders of our own impermanence, from the passing of a member of our community to the fading of the natural world around us. We can let such reminders become a cause for fear or disturbance, or we can see them as an opportunity to place our trust in the only One who will truly last. Jesus, the Son of Man, will return for each of us, either in glory at the end of time, or when we see him face to face at the close of our lives. Let us strive anew to find comfort and stability and hope in him, not in the changing things of this passing world. As we prepare to encounter him in this Eucharist once again, may its graces help us to strive to be ready at all times to encounter him face to face, so that when we do it is not with fear, but with faith, expectation, and joy.