33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 18, 2018

The mid-term elections were twelve days ago and some people probably think that the world might come to an end because their candidate or issue failed to win the election; others probably think they avoided the end of the world because their favored candidate or issue won. That is, of course, with the exception of those who live in Florida. Florida is experiencing a delayed Parousia, hoping that the ballot recounts are concluded by the time the next cataclysmic election season arrives.

There is something about our human nature that finds cosmic disaster morbidly attractive. One of the undesirable consequences of our attraction to calamitous events is that we can easily misunderstand Scriptural texts such as today’s Gospel reading that says, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mk. 13:24-25)

Today’s selection of Mark’s Gospel is an apocalyptic redaction of some of Jesus’ sayings about the Kingdom of God. Biblical apocalyptic is a type of literature that interprets the present and the immediate past by using fantastical images of conflict, destruction, and ultimately, the triumph of God’s People. While it might be tempting to see today’s Gospel reading as a prediction of the realization of one’s deepest fears, Biblical apocalyptic always proclaims hope and always inspires greater faith.

According to Biblical apocalyptic, the trials and tribulations that God’s People experience in the present are merely a brief prelude to the cosmic validation of the Gospel message that will occur when the whole of creation will acknowledge Jesus as Messiah. Biblical apocalyptic isn’t a scary story intended to frighten people into making a particular sectarian or partisan choice. Rather, Biblical apocalyptic is reassurance given to those who have already chosen to live just, holy, and peaceful lives. Biblical apocalyptic says that, in the end, all will know what believers already acknowledge, namely, that Jesus is Lord.

It is important to note that the hope proclaimed by Biblical apocalyptic is not a hope based on world events (an election, for example), but based on the future triumph of God’s will. If you see in this Gospel reading a validation of your fears (political or otherwise), you are not seeing the message of the Gospel.

I’d like to propose an “end-of-the-world” scenario that reflects the Gospel’s message of hope. It’s based on the tragic and trying events that have occurred in the recent past and that will probably continue to occur. The severity and frequency of violent crimes in the United States, particularly those involving firearms, are growing at an alarming rate. A few weeks ago, eleven elderly worshipers were murdered in their Synagogue. Last week, a dozen revelers were murdered at a country music venue. One wonders what heinous, murderous event will occur next.

The on-going gun violence, the polarization of society, and the ubiquitous narcissism that leads people to think they’re entitled to do as they please might well portend the end of the world. The frequency of murders of individuals and groups has the effect of making everyone increasingly inured to the violence. As we grow more accustomed to grossly anti-social behavior, we will grow to be more tolerant of increasingly violent acts. Eventually, genocide and nuclear warfare will begin to look acceptable to the majority of people. Our species is fully capable of ending its own existence, that is, of bringing about the end of the world (at least, for ourselves).

In the absence of faith in Jesus as Savior, the on-going violence in the world leads inevitably to despair and self-destruction. In the light of the Gospel, violence, anxiety, and social polarization are familiar examples of the poverty of spirit that God chose to accept in the Incarnation and Crucifixion of Jesus. When the second person of the Trinity took on our human flesh, he took on all of our human nature. As today’s second reading says, he became our high priest to offer a perfect sacrifice of obedience to God on our behalf.

The human frailty that leads to violence is a stark reminder of our spiritual poverty – of the fact that we are insufficient to supply what we need for a whole and healthy life. The human frailty that leads to violence and other sinful acts is a reminder of our need for a Savior beyond ourselves. It is possible for all people to see violence as a call to repentance and reliance on God. It is possible, but only if the Gospel message is proclaimed to all the world.

In the absence of faith, the on-going violence in the world is cause only for despair and, ultimately, willing participation in the violence. For God’s faithful People, the end of the world portended by senseless acts of violence is a call to personal repentance and to give witness to our faith. If you’re frightened by the possibility of a cataclysmic end to the world, there is hope available to those who put their trust in Jesus. If you do not fear the end, you have the obligation to proclaim your hope and faith to those who have none.

In light of last week’s events, an addendum to this homily seems appropriate.

The Catholic Bishops in the United States meet twice annually to discuss matters of pastoral concern. This year, the Bishops changed their meeting agenda at the last moment in order to deal with the on-going clergy sexual misconduct scandal.

The Bishops started their week with a day of prayer. Their revised meeting agenda included approval of a Code of Conduct for Bishops, forming a board of lay Catholics to deal with allegations of malfeasance involving Bishops, and requesting the Vatican’s assistance in resolving the very disturbing case of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

At the end of the week’s meetings, they had accomplished nothing: no Code of Conduct, no accountability process, and no answers to a decades-long scandal. They equivocated over everything they had set out to address and managed only to give themselves a week away from office work. One of the Bishops went so far as to make a cynical joke about the group’s indifference to minimal standards of accountability. (Laurie Goodstein, “‘Summer of Shame’ for U.S. Catholics Takes Heavy Toll,” New York Times, November 17, 2018.)

The state of the Catholic Church has been degraded to the point that one wonders how much more the Catholic Faithful can withstand. The Catholic Bishops in the United States appear to be making a concerted effort to drive people away from the Church, destroy the tenuous credibility of organized religion, and bring Catholicism in this country to a tragic end. The negligence of Bishops certainly will not bring about the end of the world, but it has already brought about the end of the Church as we knew it. In the absence of faith, there would be every reason to despair for the future of the Church.

The Scriptures say that the tribulations and tragedies that occur in the present are a prelude to vindication for God’s faithful people. This message, proclaimed by Biblical apocalyptic, is intended to be hopeful, but one might well ask if there is any substantive reason for hope in our present situation. I’d like to suggest that the on-going crisis of leadership in the Church provides a compelling reason to remain faithful despite the considerable challenges to doing so.

The chronic behavior on the part of U.S. Bishops of protecting known sex offenders from the consequences of their actions is a vivid reminder that the best of intentions can lead to unconscionable irresponsibility. Faith in Jesus as Savior provides one with the ability to discern the presence of sin in oneself, the potential for sin in the lives of others, and the necessity of repentance. A lack of faith, however, starves one’s conscience of spiritual sustenance. In the absence of faith, the most despicable and destructive sins become indistinguishable from virtue.

There is every reason to remain faithful when those in leadership positions act in faithless ways. It makes little sense to forfeit the blessings of a faithful life simply because someone else has chosen to do so.

Remaining faithful during these trying times requires that one dwell more intently on one’s trust in God than on one’s revulsion over injustice and irresponsibility. This, in fact, is the only successful strategy for remaining faithful, regardless of the presence or absence of challenges to faith. The Scripture says, “seek and you shall find.” (Mt. 7:7) This is a truism; one always finds what one seeks. If one’s attention is given to sin and injustice, those vices fill one’s consciousness. If, however, one gives one’s attention to God, one’s consciousness is filled with God’s Spirit.

Discouragement, trials, and tribulations are to be expected in the life of faith; while these are unavoidable, abandoning one’s faith is not unavoidable. The Scripture says that, in the end, the faithful will be vindicated and all people (including sinners), will know what believers already know.