Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B
Daniel 12:1-3; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32
Last year, when we were all stuck at home at the beginning of the pandemic, my family and I watched a lot of television. We got into a cycle of watching murder mysteries – you know, older ones like Columbo, Perry Mason, and the Maltese Falcon, and newer ones like Monk and Death in Paradise – that sort of thing. It occurred to me much later that we'd inadvertently shown our then 11-year-old son, at a very impressionable age, hundreds of ways of trying to get away with murder. Fortunately, all of these series also showed him that the murderer always gets caught in the end and brought to justice, so we'll call it even.
There is one particular mystery series that we've watched from the BBC called Father Brown. This program is based on a series of books by the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton about a fictional priest in a small town in England who always helps the local police solve murders in his free time. The TV series is quite free of religion except where the story needs a confessional, or a wedding, or some such plot device to move it along. The original books are not like that at all, and Mr. Chesterton often has Father Brown apply lessons involving moral teachings of the Church in the narrative. One lesson he taught struck me as important today as we discuss the apocalyptic literature that is the first reading and the discussion of the end of the world that is in the Gospel. In one story, when the man who turns out to be the murderer attempts to hide something from Father Brown citing a family curse which he ominously warns is a burden “written on the altar of the Unknown God,” Father Brown unflinchingly rebukes him, saying: “I know the Unknown God…. I know his name; it is Satan. The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it.” [G. K. Chesterton, The Father Brown Complete Collection, Kindle Edition, p. 231]
G. K. Chesterton knew what we all re-learn continuously. Evil people often prey on superstitious people using religious principles to effect their ends, whether those ends be power, money, or notoriety. We all have heard of the many cults that thrive out there, enticing people with promises of special knowledge that will improve their lives or give them a special warning to prepare them for the end times. This is not a new phenomenon: it is as old as humanity itself. For example, a cult leader Richard Kieninger got 800 people to join him in a community near Chicago in the 1970s and then again later in Texas in the Eighties and the Nineties to prepare for the end of the word, which he said would happen on May 5, 2000. Spoiler alert: it didn't happen. Mr. Kieninger wrote a book titled The Hidden Jesus, in which he claims that he has discovered the true source of Christ's power which has been apparently hidden from all of the rest of us, or at least that's what the blurb on the cover indicates, since I'm not going to read it. I don't need to.
Jesus Christ, and the Church he founded, have maintained from the beginning, that Christianity is based entirely on the known public teachings of Christ and does not have hidden teachings or doctrines. We are not a people of secrets, we are a people of the light. We don't initiate catechumens in some secret ceremony, we do it at the Easter Vigil Mass with all in attendance who want to come. If Jesus tells us today in the Gospel that no one, not even he himself, knows the day or the hour, how come some many people seem to think that they have broken the secret code and somehow know? Maybe it's fun to speculate on how the world will end, but unfortunately too many people take this kind of thing seriously. The first reading clearly directs us to “lead the many to justice … [to] be like stars forever” [Daniel 12:3 NABRE] or at least says that the wise among us will do so. In other words, how we live our lives is the important thing, and when the end comes, whether the world ends first or our individual lives do so, either way we will have done what is necessary to find favor with God. That is what the Church teaches that we must do.
The Church does not teach that the Book of Revelation, or the Old Testament Book of Daniel from which the first reading is taken and upon which Revelation draws, along with the books of Ezekiel and Zechariah, are to be taken literally. They are a form of apocalyptic literature, which is described thus in the notes for the New American Bible, the translation we use at Mass: “The Book of Revelation cannot be adequately understood except against the historical background that occasioned its writing. Like Daniel and other apocalypses, it was composed as resistance literature to meet a crisis. The book itself suggests that the crisis was ruthless persecution of the early church by the Roman authorities; the harlot Babylon symbolizes pagan Rome, the city on seven hills (Rev 17:9). The book is, then, an exhortation and admonition to Christians of the first century to stand firm in the faith and to avoid compromise with paganism, despite the threat of adversity and martyrdom; they are to await patiently the fulfillment of God’s mighty promises.” https://bible.usccb.org/bible/revelation/0
Although not persecuted as the early Christians were, at least in developed countries, the Church is still beset by a culture that fights against it on multiple fronts. Ads on all types of media tell us that happiness can be bought rather than finding joy in the love of God and neighbor. Life is not respected by many, who are willing to disregard its sanctity whenever it becomes inconvenient to themselves. Reality TV shows thrive on trumped up conflict and personal animosity to stimulate interest of viewers who seem to be fascinated with people fighting and being mean to one another. I could go on all day listing examples of non-Christian behavior continually assaulting one in a supposedly Christian nation.
Today's first reading is telling us to take heart: these trials on this earth will not last, but must come to an end. Stay the course and do what's right. Today's Gospel is telling us that the timing of that end is unknown, even to Jesus Himself, but will eventually come, and with it His justice, and we can count on that. Idle speculation on when and how this will come about is fine if it is kept as one of those leisure activities we have to spend our free time. It becomes sinful when it prevents us from focusing on those things that are really important, the things Christ told us not in complex symbolic language but in clear-spoken mandates and simple parables: love God and one another, turn the other cheek, perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, and most importantly, make joyful disciples that will do so as well.
As we continue with the Mass with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, we will use one of the symbolic representations of Christ found in the Book of Revelation: the Lamb of God. We do know what this means: Christ sacrificed Himself so that we could achieve justification before God, what in the second reading is called making “perfect forever those who are being consecrated” [Hebrews 10:14 NABRE]. Apocalyptic literature has given us this wonderful symbolism for the reason God sent His son to Earth, the mission we will celebrate the beginning of in just a few short weeks with Advent and Christmas. We pray that this symbolism will help us to understand and appreciate the mystery that is Christ' sacrifice as true God and true man sent by the Father because He so loved the World. And let us also pray that we understand and appreciate the teaching of Christ fully, of which there is no mystery and are plainly laid out for us to follow. Let us love the world and the God who made it, and not let the distractions of it cloud our journey to its end, however God intends it to unfold.