Someone walked into the parish office a few weeks ago, and announced that the Music at Sunday Mass was beautiful, the people sitting next to him had been very courteous and the homily was inspiring. I responded that if things were going that well, he should go to confession immediately as it was almost certainly a sign of “the end times.”
It’s been a while since there has been a public prediction of the end of the world. The most recent one I remember was when someone claimed that the Mayan calendar predicted the world would end in December 2012. Ironically, the world ended for the Maya long before that particular December. It’s been more than four years since the last improbable prediction; we’re due for one soon, I think. On the other hand, it might be the case that our cultural infatuation with global tragedy is being fully satisfied by the current crop of Presidential candidates.
I’ve always been very uncomfortable with “end of the world” predictions. I am unconvinced that it is possible to see into the future. There remains, however, a deep-seated milleniarist character to Christianity. Jesus’ preaching often referred to a cataclysmic end to human existence. (Luke 21:20-28) These apocalyptic sayings were often accompanied by a call to conversion. (Luke 21:29-36)
A similar pattern is seen in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus referred to two recent tragic events and said, “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (Luke 13:5) This type of teaching was both an expression of Jesus’ personal sense of urgency about his mission and a plea to heed his words. As time passed, however, believers began to question the urgency of Jesus’ call to repentance. The immanent end of the world, and glorious return of the Son of Man, did not happen as quickly as expected; some wondered if they had believed in vain. Luke’s Gospel addresses the delay of the Lord’s return in glory by muting some of the millenarism of Jesus’ preaching, and by making repentance an on-going task.
In American culture, conversion is thought of as a one-time event. The door-to-door proselytizers whom you hide from on Saturday mornings, and the Spring Break preachers who wash up on Clearwater Beach, depict conversion as a single decision, most often motivated by fear of eternal punishment. The obvious fallacy about this notion of conversion is that human life is not something that is lived on one level only. To be human means to have an intellectual life, an emotional life, a physical life, a memory and myriad relationships. Conversion, if it is real, must take place on all these levels, but none of these aspects of human existence move together in lockstep.
Our intellectual lives grow in response to cognitive experience. Our emotional lives change in response to daily activities, our physical health and many other factors. Our physical existence is the result of genetics, nurture, physical activity and our environment. Relationships change and grow constantly; even memory changes as we age. There is more uncertainty and incompleteness about human existence than there is permanency. Conversion, if it is real, must be an on-going and evolving process.
I suggest to you that the milleniarist character of the Gospel message, and the on-going nature of the task of conversion, are signs of hope.
Life in this world can be very pleasant, often joyful. At times, however, life can also be tragic and unjust. It is often difficult to make sense of the ambiguities in our world and our existence. What are we to do about the fact that the things that bring us joy last only for a time? Some people respond to the passing nature of created things by trying to amass as many things as possible. Others reject the world, even the good things of the world, and adopt an attitude of permanent disappointment. Some judge human life to be hopelessly absurd. The Gospel offers a very different possibility.
The Gospel presents conversion as a possibility for all people, and as a lifelong task. Both the universality of the need for conversion, and the incompleteness of conversion, are to be seen as blessings. It used to be said about elections in the city of Chicago that residents were encouraged to vote “early and often.” As a commentary on corrupt politics, this advice is cynical. As a perspective on repentance, however, it is a reflection of Gospel hope: every person should repent early and often.
The first act of repentance in anyone’s life is usually affective: an emotional response to the awareness of personal sin. Affective or moral conversion is a good beginning, but incomplete in itself. Affective or moral conversion must be followed by intellectual conversion, a change in behavior and a re-ordering of one’s relationships. This process of conversion that filters down through the depths of personality often brings one to a new realization of personal sinfulness and a new cycle of interior renewal.
On-going conversion is the only sensible way to view the change of heart called for in the Gospel, and the only way to avoid the discouragement that results from relying solely on impermanent created joys. In the second reading Paul quotes a proverb, “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” (1 Corinthians 10:12) To rely on temporary things as a source of security is a formula for disappointment. Counterintuitively, the Gospel tells us to rely on the promise of change: a change of heart, on-going conversion, and ultimately, resurrection.