In today’s Gospel reading Jesus makes a prophetic utterance much like the prophetic utterances of the ancient prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah and Ezekiel. His reference to “powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs . . . from the sky” (Luke 21:11), probably sounds like a Hollywood doomsday movie to us, but these images were the ordinary substance of apocalyptic literature during Jesus’ lifetime.
The event that Jesus described in this passage of Luke’s Gospel was called “The Trial.” “The Trial” was a final, cataclysmic event that would put all people to the test to separate authentic believers from the faithless and half-hearted. This ancient Hebrew notion of “The Trial” appears often in the Scriptures, although translations sometimes obscure its presence. For example, in The Lord’s Prayer the line translated as “lead us not into temptation” actually says “do not forsake us during The Trial.”
The final cataclysm that would try the faith of God’s People was something everyone expected; it formed part of the religious imagination of Jesus’ era. His reference to it would not have sounded as dramatic at the time as it might now, but he did offer an unique perspective on “The Trial.” He said, “do not be afraid; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” (Luke 21:9) According to Jesus, the expected cataclysm itself would not be “The Trial,” but only a precursor to “The Trial.”
A Scripture commentary I read this past week stated this more succinctly. The commentary said that disasters and cosmic signs are not signs of the end of time; rather, they are signs of how far we are from the end. (Living Liturgy, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN) Although “powerful earthquakes, famines and plagues” (Luke 21:11), are tragic, they are rather normal events in this world. It is sad, but true, that we are surrounded daily by tragedy, loss and sorrow. Jesus said that we should not be disturbed by these sad, but normal, events; rather, we should remain faithful, and rely on God’s strength. It is necessary to be reminded of this wisdom from time to time.
In his Spiritual Exercises St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote about tragedies such as the one Jesus mentioned in today’s Gospel reading. Ignatius wrote that those who make an effort to be more faithful to God, and more morally upright in their behavior, should expect to face frustration, sadness and obstacles to progress; these are the normal temptations that afflict the person who follows God’s will. (Second Rule of Discernment) Rather than allow these to be obstacles to growth in holiness, these should be seen as signs that one is progressing in the right direction. It’s counter-intuitive, but faithful to Jesus’ teaching, to see disappointment, tragedy and obstacles as encouragement to continue to follow God’s will.
If, for example, your candidate or party lost in this recent election, you might be tempted to despair about your future or the future of the government. Such sadness is normal, and to be expected; do not let it change you for the worse. What you might perceive as an obstacle to your happiness is actually a sign that you are progressing in the right direction, and an encouragement to continue to do so. If your party or candidate won the election, Ignatius also gave advice to those who experience joy, peace and fulfillment: remember and cherish those consolations the next time you face disappointment.
If you are experiencing personal tragedy right now, you might be tempted to discouragement or self-pity or to try to escape from the feelings of loss and sadness. At times of loss and sadness, one should never change one’s intention to grow in holiness and obedience to God’s will. Suffering and obstacles are normal; they are to be expected. Keep in mind God’s many blessings and the fact that loss and sadness are temporary burdens; they will pass.
Global tragedies are lamentable, but normal. Personal tragedy is always unwanted, but equally unavoidable. None of these tragic events are actually signs of the end of days. Rather, they are signs of how far we are from the end; they are signs that remind us of our need to remain faithful to God, and to continue to make progress in faith. It’s very, very easy to become discouraged when events don’t go in our favor, but God’s favor is always more valuable and more redemptive than the favor of the world. The Scripture says, “for you who reverence My Name, the sun of justice will arise with healing in its wings.” (Micah 3:20) Suffering and disappointment will pass away; God’s promise remains for ever.