By Fr. Ambrose
“’Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch,’ says the Lord.” A little thought for us this morning from the prophet Malachi. And then our Lord told us just a moment ago, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place, and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.”
This is pretty apocalyptic language, and I have to say that it almost matches the tone of the political news of this last week. We had the frothy fervor of a gory presidential campaign, then the almost unbelievable outcome of the election, and now the fever-pitch continues all over the internet while little pockets of disappointed citizens throw riotous temper tantrums in the downtown streets of coastal cities. The silliness of all of that amped-up emotion in the world almost makes the tone of these apocalyptic scriptural texts sound kind of refreshing and hopeful. Actually, that’s how it’s supposed to be when we think of the end times and the last things: hopeful. What must we do when we hear such things, like these Scripture readings today? Repent—and have hope.
We find ourselves again at the end of another liturgical year. Next Sunday is Christ the King, and just two weeks from today we will begin a brand new church year with the first Sunday of Advent. As we bring this year to a close, the Church’s liturgy invites us to think about the end of the world. Why such a weighty matter on such a beautiful and peaceful Sunday morning?
Well, my friends, our Holy Mother the Church knows how much we human creatures try to avoid thoughts of the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. We tend to want to keep our eyes fixed on things here below, the sensational news of elections and politics, or sports or entertainment, or whatever. Or more positively, we tend to fixate on good and ordinary things—our families and our lives—all the many good things that God gives us to use and enjoy during our time on this earth. It’s good that we use and enjoy them and thank him for all those many good things. It’s also good that we concern ourselves sometimes with more sensational things, like hoping that someone might figure out how to turn the ship of state onto a better course. But it’s supremely important that we remember that everything—our families and our lives and the many concerns we have here below—all these things are passing away. You see, my friends, we do not belong here. It’s really easy to forget that, but it’s absolutely true. We Christians are not made for this world. We are citizens of another homeland, a heavenly homeland, and the day will come for each of us when our King will return to take us there.
In the Office of Readings this last week, since last Sunday as a matter of fact, we’ve been listening to a homily written in the second century. That anonymous ancient homilist told us this just yesterday, “Let us be sure that when the day of judgment comes, our place will be among those who give thanks to God and have served him, and not with the ungodly who face condemnation.” This is the normal Christian sentiment when we think about that day—whether it be the day of our death or the end of the world. We hope, of course, to be among the elect and not among the damned. That same homilist goes on to give us the perfect disposition whereby we can end up on the right side of that ultimate reckoning. He writes, “As for myself, I am only a sinner, not yet beyond the reach of temptation; but even amidst all the devil’s machinations, I still strive to make progress and hope to attain at least some virtue, for I fear the judgment that awaits me.”
As for myself I am only a sinner, but I still strive, and I hope. My friends, this is how we too must approach the reality of our death and judgment: repentance and hope; or better, perhaps, repentance that moves us to hope. As for myself I am only a sinner, but I still hope to attain at least some virtue. The prophet Malachi, who began our rather sobering lesson today with the blazing oven and the stubble set afire—repentance—also writes of hope. He prophesies that the Lord told him that there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays. And for whom? For those who fear the Lord’s name, that is, for those who have repented. So if we would imitate that second-century Christian homilist, who faced the thought of his judgment with such honest hope, then we might start out like he did, that is, by repenting. Repentance, my friends, is a tremendous grace.
St. Isaac the Syrian, that great monk and mystic of the seventh century, describes the grace of Christian repentance this way: “Anyone who knows his sins is greater than someone who by his prayer raises a dead person. Anyone who groans for himself for an hour is greater than someone who teaches the whole universe. Anyone who knows his own weakness is greater than someone who sees the angels. Anyone who, alone and contrite, follows Christ, is greater than someone who enjoys the favor of the crowds.” My friends, this kind of repentance—knowing myself to be a sinner, groaning for myself for an hour, recognizing my own weakness, following Christ—this is the repentance that will give us hope on the last day.
Our Lord doesn’t mince words about how demanding the confession of our faith might be. He tells us today, “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends, and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name.” No matter how demanding our call, no matter how terrifying that last day might be, if we recognize our weakness and cling to Christ our Savior, we have everything we need, absolutely everything, and our hope will be secure. Christ our King will come to judge the living and the dead and the world by fire, and so we must repent, and cling to him, because he loves us. That same King has already come as our Savior, and so we can hope, and cling to him, because he loves us. He comes to us now as food for our souls during our exile. May we receive him with repentance and hope, and ever cling to him, because he loves us. Amen.