Watch for the End of the World
Between now and the end of the liturgical year, four weeks from now, we will be hearing a lot about the end of the world. "Brothers and sisters," St. Paul tells us today, "do not be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or be alarmed” about the end of the world, about "the day of the Lord.”
But what do we know about the end of the world? First of all, we know for sure that Jesus is alive. That’s what we celebrate first and foremost every Sunday: Jesus is alive and is coming back. We know that he died once, and that he rose from the dead, and that he will never die again.
We also know that both our Lord and his Blessed Mother went to heaven with their bodies. Where that might be, we are not sure, but it is a place—whether in this universe or outside we don’t know. But we do know that they can travel to and from that place, and that they will! Jesus is coming back, and Mary too, as we here in the Book of Revelation: “A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun.” And that’s very real: Jesus and Mary coming back. They will be here, even more truly than I am here now talking to you.
We also know that there will be a judgement, that all the enemies of Christ and his Church will be conquered once and for all, that God will establish perfect order and harmony, and that “God will be all in all,” as St. Paul puts it.
And our bodies? We know that we will all rise from the dead and live forever: the just with God in heaven, wherever that will be (but, again, it will be a place), and the unrepentant in the other place, without God. But these bodies will be transformed; they will be spiritual bodies and will not be subject to the normal laws of physics: “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body,” St. Paul tells us.
But where will we be? What will happen to the earth, the sun, the moon, and the stars, the millions and millions of stars? Will they all be destroyed? Or will they too, like our bodies, be transformed?
Now, here is where things are a going to get a little more cloudy. Even though this is the part people have visualized the most, made movies about and written books about, and so forth, we don’t know exactly what the universe is going to look like. This is what the Second Vatican Council's pastoral document on the Church, Gaudium et Spes, taught (and I quote): "We [do not know the] way in which the universe will be transformed."
But it will be transformed. Again, St. Paul tells us that creation was subjected to futility, but that “creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” St. Thomas Aquinas also believed that the universe would not be destroyed—and wow that would be a lot to destroy because the universe is a pretty big place, but as the first reading says today, to God it’s only a grain of sand in a balance—but Aquinas taught that the universe rather would be purified, by fire, from whatever was not compatible with the resurrection. Either way, it’s going to be pretty intense, so we’re going to have to be brave, very brave, and that’s really what this homily is about. I’ll explain that in a moment.
Before that, we need to ask the question that probably most of us want to know most: *When?* When is all of this going to happen?
And our Lord himself told us that we know neither the day nor the hour when the Son of Man will come. But he didn’t say that we would have no idea, that it would be a total surprise: "Surprise I’m here!" That’s why the first reading today tells us that God warns us little by little, corrects us little by little. You can bet that for something so important, God is going to give us signs, warnings, or even tell someone. The tradition is that he did tell the Christians in Jerusalem to flee before it was destroyed by the Romans. It’s not uncommon for a person to have an intuition about their death, and in fact many of the saints knew precisely when and how they would die. And St. Paul even says, “But you are not in darkness, brethren, for that day to surprise you like a thief.” You are not in darkness.
I know what you’re going to say right now: “Didn’t our Lord say the day would come like a thief in the night?” Yes he did, but he also told us to watch, and there would be no point in watching unless we would know somehow when he’s coming. St. Paul also says, just a few verses before what I quoted that “the day would come like a thief,” but it will come like a thief for those who say, “There is peace and security”; it will come like a thief for those who do not watch, for those who “eat and drink and say the Master is a long way off”; but for us who do wait for him, who long for him, who get to know him in prayer, we will not be surprised when he comes.
It is true that he may keep us guessing. In fact, St. Augustine says that the “signs” given in Scripture are very difficult to interpret because they are fulfilled on many different layers: They can refer “not only to Christ's coming to judgment, but also to the time of the sack of Jerusalem, and to the coming of Christ in ceaselessly visiting his Church.”
So, brothers and sisters, we must watch, and we must be brave. And this is not just the kind of courage that we have when we psyche ourselves up to do something dangerous or difficult, like jumping off a cliff into water twenty or thirty feet below or going on a roller coaster. It’s not just the adrenaline rush. That’s part of it—that’s what gives you the daring to overcome difficulty or danger. But the other part of courage, which is probably more important, is trust, surrender.
There is a recent depiction of the paratroopers who landed in Normandy during World War II. One of the paratroopers confesses to his sergeant that when he landed, he didn’t try to help his fellow soldiers or fight or anything, but instead sat there in a ditch. “Do you know why you sat there?” the sergeant asked. “Because you were afraid. Do you know why you were afraid? Because you think you still have a chance. The sooner you realize that you’re already dead, the sooner you can do your job as a soldier”.
That story at first seemed rather dark to me, but then I realized that it teaches us something about trust, about surrender. After all, what control do we really have? Everything totally depends on God, but who would we rather it depend on: him or us? The sooner we come to realize that, the sooner we will we begin to be truly brave.
That trust is based on the fact that God is good, that God is all-wise, all-powerful, and most of all loves us infinitely. So if there’s anyone that we can abandon ourselves to, it’s him.
So we must be like Zacchaeus, and do whatever it takes to get up in that tree, to see our Lord: in prayer, in work, in our neighbor, in the sacraments, in creation, constantly looking for and waiting for our Lord, until that day when we hear him say, “Come down quickly, for today, salvation has come to this house.” Amen.