As the Liturgical Year comes to a close — we have two weeks left —, the Church, every year, invites us to ponder on the ‘four last things’: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Already last week we began to talk about the importance of the resurrection for our faith. And you’ll notice, that from now until Advent, our readings will focus more and more on death and the ‘end of the world’, or the ‘judgement of the world’.
Now, this isn’t meant to scare us: the Church is not a prophet of doom. Rather, the Church is a prophet of hope, because in reminding us of these things — especially death and judgement —, she’s calling our attention to the most important aspect of our lives.
You see, today’s Gospel isn’t so much about future predictions of the ‘end of the world’, or about the various famines and plagues and dreadful portents that will precede it (cf. v. 9, 11). Rather, by using what we call ‘apocalyptic language’ — an ancient Jewish literary device that uses images of the end of the world (cf. Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Amos, Nahum, Zephaniah, Matthew 24, Mark 13, Revelation) —, Jesus is actually calling our attention to the present.
The key phrases to understand today’s Gospel passage are verse 6 and the first part of verse 9. The whole talk about persecution and war is rooted in Jesus’ line about the Temple; it’s almost a kind of sidebar or distraction: by asking questions about the timing of the destruction, the listeners seem to have missed the point. Jesus’ point rather, was that the external beauty of the Temple, its decorations, adornments and stones — which are not wrong; beautiful churches are important —, needs to be secondary to the internal beauty of the temple of our soul.
You see, today’s scene follows the widow’s mite: the scene where a poor widow, out of her love for God, put all that she had (two small copper coins) in the Temple offering; a stark contrast to the rich, who only put some of their extra money in the offering (Lk 21: 1-4).
In connecting the two — the example of the widow’s generous offering and trusting abandonment to God, and the fleeting beauty of the Temple —, Jesus is calling us to be vigilant that salvation is what’s important in our life. That’s why He tells us in verse 9 to not be terrified: because if we focus on Him, then nothing else really matters. Riches, physical beauty, luxury… all these things fade and come to an end when we die. But our friendship with the Lord, our closeness to Christ, the effects of grace: these are eternal! These are what make us truly beautiful; these are what lead us to salvation. As such, then, these are the truly important things. There’s no sense in building beautiful churches if we aren’t first building beautiful temples within us. That’s why, in the second reading, Paul is calling us to be imitators of him (2 Thes 3:7), so that we might, like him, work tirelessly for our sanctification and the sanctification of others.
But, we have to be careful: salvation doesn’t ‘depend’ on us and our efforts; it depends on God’s grace. But if we don’t actually seek out God’s grace and open our hearts to cooperate with it — that is, if we don’t make use of the Sacraments (especially Confession and the Eucharist), and if we don’t change our lives to abandon sin —, then we can’t expect God’s grace to magically change us. It’s a an extension of Paul’s line: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat (2 Thes 3:10b). If we don’t want to be saved, if we don’t make the changes we need to so as to receive God’s grace, then we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t get it. We can’t just go around pretending to follow God. (Now, I’m not saying this is what you do, but we always have to be on guard!) As the famous line in the movie “The Nun’s Story” (Audrey Hepburn) goes: ‘you can fool me, you might even fool yourself, but you can’t fool God’.
The Church invites us in these ‘end times’ of the Liturgical Year to ponder on death and judgment so that we might also ponder on our spiritual life to see where we stand. Are we ready for judgment? If I die today, where will I go: heaven or hell? Is Christ really the focus of my life, or is there something in the way? Do I really make efforts to live according to the love of Jesus?
Chances are we’re all missing the mark a bit; I know I am! But this is why we need Jesus! And this is why Jesus tells us not to be terrified, because the end isn’t immediate (cf. v. 9). As St. Peter tells us in his third letter: …beloved, while you are waiting for these things [a new heaven and a new earth], strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation (2 Pt 3:14-15). Jesus gives us this time — this life time — so that we might repent and turn to Him to be saved, and this is itself a gift of His mercy, because He doesn’t want the death of the sinner (cf. Ez 18:23, 32).
But none of us know how much time we have left, so it’s essential that we’re always turning back to the Lord, asking for His mercy and forgiveness, so that the grace He gives us will be fruitful and be working toward our salvation. Because if we are faithful to Christ, not a hair of [our] head will perish (v. 18), but rather, by [our] endurance [we] will gain your souls (v. 19) and rejoice with Him in the Kingdom of Heaven. Amen.