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Old Calendar: Sixth Resumed Sunday after Epiphany
Jesus said to his disciples: "In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky (Mk 13:24-27)."
Waiting in Joyful Hope for the Lord's Coming
Dan 12:1-3; Heb 10:11-14, 18; Mk 13:24-32
It is very common for the passages from Sacred Scripture that we have at Mass to begin, “at that time,” or “in those days” as the first reading and the Gospel do today. But on other Sundays, we’re almost always talking about the PAST — e.g., “at that time, Jesus came to Capernaum in Galilee.” Today, however, we’re speaking not about the past, but about the future: the end of the world, when the Archangel Michael will arise (first reading) and Jesus, the Son of Man, will “come on the clouds with great power and glory” along with his angels (Gospel). “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,” the first reading tell us, “some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” When this will occur, “no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
Many people, when they hear this truth that we proclaim every Sunday during the praying of the Creed — “he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead" — look at it with a certain fear and dread, but that is not the reaction Jesus wants from us. To determine what your attitude is toward Jesus’ second coming: if the end of the world were to come by noon today, what would your attitude be? When the early Christians reflected on this reality of Jesus’ second coming, they used to cry out “Marana tha,” “Come, Lord Jesus!” They LOOKED FORWARD to this event with great expectation, because it would lead to their full unity in love with the Lord forever. Our attitude is supposed to be similar. We pray in every Mass, after the Our Father, “In your mercy, keep us free from sin … as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ!” The attitude we’re called to have versus Jesus’ second coming is “joyful hope.” Last weekend, when I was preaching a retreat in Los Angeles, one of the more senior retreatants came to see me with a question. “Father, is it wrong and sinful for me to look forward to my death so that I can, God-willing, be with Jesus forever in heaven?” I said to her an emphatic and tender “no!” Then she said to me, “Then why doesn’t anyone else in the Church seem to have this longing?” That’s a good question.
The reason, I think, has everything to do with the first part of that prayer from the Mass, and our linking our being “free from sin” with our ability to wait in “joyful hope” for the coming of the Lord. When I was a young boy, most days I would wait with eager expectation for the return of my father from work. It would take place about 4:35 pm. At about quarter-past-four, our dog would start pacing around the house with its tail wagging. Each of the four kids would take regular glances at the clock. Eventually we would hear the shutting of the heavy steel door of my father’s van and we would all hustle toward the back door through which he would come and hug each of us as our dog was jumping up and down between and around us. They were very joyous and beautiful moments. We loved our dad and couldn’t wait for him to return so that we could be with him. But I said that “MOST days” I would wait with this eager expectation. Some days I would actually dread his return — precisely on those days when I had done something WRONG and I knew that my mother would soon tell him of my malefactions and I would suffer the just consequences of my misdeeds. I think that experience at home is a parable for our disposition in front of the returning of the Lord. If we really love our Lord, we should be impatient for his return, so that we can be with him. If we’re ready to greet him, it is a time of “joyful hope” and “expectation.” For those of us who have “done something wrong,” however, who have not been “free from sin,” who haven’t been doing what we ought to have been doing with the gift of life from the Lord, then it’s something to which we do not look forward — something even that we can dread.
How do those of us who do dread the coming of the Lord — either at the end of time, or at the end of our lives, whichever comes first (and either may come in a matter of minutes) — become those who can await his coming with “joyful hope”? The great saints have told us the secret to this transition: it’s by living each moment as if it is our last, by being ready at all times to meet the Lord so that we will never really be caught off guard when he comes. Jesus uses the parable of the ten virgins to illustrate the point. Five have enough oil in their lamps as they await the Bridegroom’s arrival no matter what time he comes in the middle of the night. The five “foolish” virgins have let the oil in their lamps run dry and hence fear his arrival for they will not be ready. We’re called to be like those “wise virgins,” with the lamps of our hearts perpetually burning the oil of love in expectation for the Lord. The light that is lit symbolically for us in our baptism — when our baptismal candle is lit from the Paschal or Easter candle symbolizing Christ the Light of the World — is meant to be “kept burning brightly” like a tabernacle lamp for the Lord.
How we do keep it burning? The Church gives us two common ways which are in fact extraordinary that some of us can take for granted. The first way we maintain the flame is by preventing its being extinguished by sin. And if we know that the Lord’s coming may always be imminent — even in a matter of minutes — it will help us to avoid sin, because few of us, thanks be to God, would choose to sin if we were conscious that the Lord were about to appear and catch us “in the act.” The saints have taught and shown us by their example that if we keep the oil of love in the tabernacle lamp of our heart fully stocked in vigilant, longing expectation, it is much harder for the flame to be extinguished. But if IS blown out by sin, the way we get it lit again is by the sacrament of confession. The Catechism says that the sacrament of confession is like an anticipated “second coming of the Lord: “In this sacrament, the sinner, placing himself before the merciful judgment of God, ANTICIPATES in a certain way the judgment to which he will be subjected at the end of his earthly life. For it is now, in this life, that we are offered the choice between life and death, and it is only by the road of conversion that we can enter the Kingdom, from which one is excluded by grave sin. In converting to Christ through penance and faith, the sinner PASSES FROM DEATH TO LIFE [in THIS life] and "does not come into judgment.” By going to be forgiven now in the tribunal of God’s mercy, we have nothing to fear later in the tribunal of God’s justice.
The second means we keep the oil in our lamp burning and prepare for Jesus’ coming with “joyful hope” is to LIVE the Mass. In the Mass, we meet the Lord Jesus who comes for us in his word and in his body, blood, soul and divinity. The better we prepare for Mass, the more we look forward with eager expectation to it, the more we arrive at Mass “free from sin” through the sacrament of confession, the better our preparation for meeting Christ at the end of time, for it is the same Christ who will come on the clouds surrounded by all his angels. Meeting the Lord Jesus in the Mass is the best preparation of all for meeting him at the end of time or the end of our lives. As we pray in the various options for the “mystery of faith”: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, UNTIL YOU COME IN GLORY”; “Dying you destroyed our death; rising your restored our life, LORD, JESUS, COME IN GLORY!” In the Mass, we explicitly connect our receiving Jesus in Communion with our being ready and expectant for his return. The Mass IS the prayer of “Marana tha,” “Come, Lord Jesus!,” enveloping us within the Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation.
So we’re called to develop a real hunger for the Mass and to come to meet Christ here with the same dispositions with which we hope to meet him when he comes at the end of time or at the end of our lives. The second reading tells us about the importance of the Mass and implies something crucial about our own preparation for it. It says that Christ “offered once and for all a single sacrifice for sins.” Christ does not offer himself again and again and again through his priests, at 7 am, 9 am and 11 am. Christ offered himself once, when he said during the Last Supper “this is my body… given for you,” “this is the cup of my blood, … to be shed for you,” and finished it when he said, “It is finished!,” as he gave his beaten body to the Cross from which he dripped the same blood we consume in the chalice at Mass. Every Mass is the participation in that ONE sacrifice that happened in Jerusalem about 1974 years ago, which is “re-presented” to us in each Mass. Because Christ’s sacrifice was eternal, we can enter it in time. But what makes this Mass different from the Mass you attended last week or the Masses that will be celebrated later today? It’s the sacrifice WE unite to Christ’s one eternal sacrifice. The priest prays right before the preface to the Eucharistic prayer, “Pray, brothers and sisters, that this sacrifice, mine [meaning Christ’s] and yours, may be acceptable to God, the Almighty Father,” because we’re called to unite our own sacrifice to the eternal offering of Christ re-presented in time for us through the ministration of Christ’s priest. Each Mass, we’re called not just to be uniting our gifts (that’s why the collection is taken during the offertory) with Christ’s sacrifice, but our very selves, saying, in effect, “Jesus, this is my body, my life, given for you” and putting our hearts on the altar, to be united with Christ’s and offered to the Father. The more we do this, and the better we do this, the better we prepare for Christ’s second coming. The more we enter in our own lives into the mystery of self-giving love we receive in the Mass, the better prepared we will be to meet Christ we he comes, the more joyful our hope will be, and the more joyful our lives will be.
During the Last Supper in which we’re about to enter, Jesus said, ““Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” Jesus has promised us that he has gone to prepare a place for us so that where he is, we always may be, and that he will come back to take us to where he is. This is great news. But he gave us this great news during the Last Supper, as he was preparing to celebrate the First Mass, the one Mass, in which we share each time we come to Mass. As we prepare to receive him in this Mass, and to offer our lives to him on this altar, let us ask him for the grace so that we may love this great sacrificial banquet and live it, so that we may have the chance to share forever in the eternal banquet, in that place he has gone to prepare for us. Come, Lord Jesus!
— Fr. Roger J. Landry