17 November 2012

Who's Afraid of the End Times?

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time - 18 November 2012

Readings: Dn 12:1-3; Ps 16:5,8,9-10,11; Heb 10:11-14,18; Mk 13:24-32

The readings this Sunday talk about the end times. In fact, the readings of the second to the last Sunday in the liturgical calendar and the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday in the calendar) both have eschatological themes. In between them is Christ the King Sunday. Christ is indeed the Alpha and Omega. But let's reserve the reflection on the significance of these dates next Sunday.

Around a few years ago, a supposed prophecy from the ancient Mayan calendar was all the rage. It allegedly predicted the end of days by 23 December 2012. Hollywood even came up with a movie  in 2009 to cash in on this very premise. Present-generation Mayans had to come forward to debunk the end-of-the-world-myth surrounding their calendar, which they say refer to the end of a lengthy era, not of the world.

The end of days has captured the imagination of many Christians through the centuries, especially those who choose to interpret the Bible in mostly literal sense. A slew of vocabularies were built up around this imagination: rapture, Armageddon, anti-Christ, millennialism, etc.

Consistently though this has never been part of the Catholic imagination. The Church fathers, among them Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Pseudo-Dionysius and especially, St. Augustine, rejected a literal reading of the various apocalyptic literature in the Bible. They affirmed what Jesus in the Gospel this Sunday says: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13,32).

What then is the proper understanding of the end times or the second coming of Christ?

1. We believe in the second coming of Christ as an article of faith.

In the Creed, which we will recite after this homily, we affirm our belief that Jesus Christ "will come again to judge the living and the dead". The longer Nicene Creed adds that "His Kingdom will have no end".

2. We look forward to it with hope.

It is supposed to be a good thing. In Daniel 12,3 in the First Reading, when the end of days happens "the wise shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament, and those who lead the many to justice shall be like the stars forever".

It is what we look forward to when we pray "Your Kingdom come" in the Our Father.

The Gospel this Sunday uses the imagery of the blossoming of the fig tree which ushers in summer, a time of growth, fruit-bearing, harvest and abundance. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus likened it to the coming of the bridegroom which brings much rejoicing to those waiting for his coming.

It is a graced time when God will gather into the promised unity His creation separated by space and time, sin and death. It is a happy reunion of the human being's body and soul, of the entire human family and the rest of creation, and most of all, of humanity and God.

If this is what the end times is all about, why the gloom and doom? Perhaps, the fear and trembling that hounds many when thinking about the end times arise from the feeling of inadequacy and unreadiness at the prospect of facing God's judgment. Which brings us to the third point...

3. The most important time in the end of days is NOW. We need to fill it with love.

How we live our present determines how our future will be. There is this sage line from the movie Kung-Fu Panda: "Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present."

One final story...

A lonely and miserly old man died and immediately found himself in the midst of hell. He then started to cry aloud to God unceasingly, pleading to be delivered from the torments of hell. God heard his cries and asked him what good he had done while still on earth. He tried to remember with great difficulty any good deed he had done, until finally he remembered: he once gave a string of onions to a beggar.

Surprisingly God said: "Alright, for that single act of kindness, you will get a chance to escape hell." He ordered His angels to make a cord out of the onion string and lower it to him.

As the angels lowered the cord, the man desperately grabbed it. Then the angels started to lift him up. When his companions saw what was happening, they rushed and held on to his feet. The more he tried to kick and untangle his feet from them, the more they held firmly, until finally the cord snapped, and they all plunged back to hell.

One of the angels told him: "Had you been more generous and well-disposed to share your blessing to others, the cord would have grown stronger. The more that you thought only of yourself, the more that the cord weakened." His habit of thinking only of himself caught up with him even in the next life.

There is more to now than just preceding the future. A saying goes: "Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Still afraid of the end times? St. Paul advises in Galatians 6,9: "Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up".

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