The End and the Beginning
Paris, November 15, 2015 (ZENIT.org) Archbishop Francesco Follo
Dn 12, 1-3; Ps 16; Heb 10: 11-14. 18; Mk 13.24 – 32
The Lord is near, at the gates.
The passage of Jesus’ speech proposed by the Liturgy of today has a language that experts call “apocalyptic”. This adjective comes from the noun “apocalypse”, which literally means revelation. However, in common speech the term has lost its original meaning of “revelation” and, especially out a religious context, indicates everything from great calamity to a succession of disastrous events. This has happened because it is a language rich in strong and often disturbing images, that are intended to elicit a listening respectful and attentive because tinged with fear.
In fact, in today’s Gospel Jesus says, “The sun and moon will be darkened and the stars will fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken. Then shall they see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory. He (Jesus, the Son of Man) will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the earth to the ends of the sky”(Mk 13: 24-26).
With the apocalyptic (literally revealing) words of verses 24 and 25 of the thirteen chapter of Mark’s Gospel, Christ tells us that the world and the humanity that lives in it are fragile. In those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give light any more, and the stars will fall from the sky. But in verses 26 and 27, Jesus infers that if there is a dying world, there is a new world too born for him and in him. We are not going to the end, to nowhere, but we are preparing for the final encounter with Christ, who is the final purpose of life and the fulfillment of the world. Implicitly, we think that we are going to end badly because we are afraid, and do not count our days because after them there is only the end. On the contrary, in this story, fundamental to the Christian faith, the end of history, the whole history, and the end of our personal story are presented as the encounter with the Lord. The purpose of the whole history is the encounter with Him and all creation is on the way to this meeting. The whole human history, our own and that of the Universe, are nothing else than a going forward further and further until the glory of the Son will shine in the world. We are children. What will be at the end is our glory; then shall they see the Son of man coming with great power and glory. The sense of history is the revelation of the Son of Man, and in him of every person, in the full power of the life and the very glory of God.
The Messiah does not wish only to tell the end of the world, but to reveal the meaning of history. He tells us that the end of the world is not the destruction of everything, but the encounter of all of us with the Son of Man. He is the Lord who forgives, the Bridegroom who loves us, the Lord of the Sabbath. He is the one who puts himself in our hands and gives us everything, even his life for us. The end of the world is not like the arrival of a thief that robs us, but the encounter with the Bridegroom who gives us everything, because on the cross of Jesus the old world is already over – the sun was obscured – and the new one was born.
Like every human being, Christians know that one day the sun will go out, but they also know that God’s light will shine forever. The end of the world is not the destruction of everything, but the meeting of all of us with the Son of Man, the Redeemer of humanity and of the world. He is the Lord who forgives. He is the one, whom is placed in our hands and gives us everything, even his life for us. In short, the end of the world is not a theft who steals everything. It is the encounter with the Bridegroom who gives us everything. It is not that we go to nowhere into space. Revelation in the last two chapters presents the meeting just like that of the bride with the groom. The Church is the bride who awaits the arrival of the Bridegroom. We should not be afraid of meeting the Love that comes for us.
Not when, but how.
The Church continues to proclaim, especially at the end of the liturgical year, the fact of this meeting of love that has to be lived in expectation. Giving weight to the words of Christ “As though that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but the Father” (Mk 13: 32), the liturgy reminds us that we are faithfully called to be always waiting for him who came centuries ago and that will come at the end of time. He also comes today and every day in our lives. For this reason a hymn of the Breviary makes us sing “Night, darkness and fog flee: light enters, Christ the Lord is coming. The Sun of justice transfigures and lightens the waiting universe”Office of Lauds, Wednesday of the second week).
In fact, in this transfiguration of the world our heart is enlarged so that Heaven will find more space and so that to have a keener attention (in the most literal sense of the term attention as of constant tension toward the Lord). He comes always but often the meeting does not take place because we live a life superficial on a spiritual level. Earthly things attract us so much so to make the soul unavailable for this wonderful meeting. Only rarely do we find ourselves in the right spiritual condition to perceive this “coming” of God. What should we do? Certainly the Lord will not change, because He always manifests himself, but our soul should change so to always live expectation and hope.
The question then is not so much on “when” (because God comes to us in every moment) but about “how”. Today I dare to propose how to answer to the question “How to await the final coming of the Kingdom?”
There are two possible attitudes, that of fear and that of hope.
If we stop at the drama of certain images of today’s Gospel, it would seem that fear should prevail. But Christ adds: “Learn from the fig tree: When its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that ” summer is near” (Mk 13: 28). If, on the one hand there is the description of destruction, on the other hand there is the promise of a tender and new life, symbolized by the image of the fig tree whose new leaves teach that the death of winter is defeated and the life of summer is about to flourish and bear fruit in life.
Fear and hope alternate always in human life, even in that of the believer, to form an ambiguous and unresolved situation.
Human hope is to wait for something but no human being can have the future.
Jewish hope was to await for the coming of the Messiah.
Christian hope makes already present the kingdom of God within us. It already implies the presence of God in our hearts and God’s presence in us makes us capable of eternal life. “Through hope we are already in heaven, even if our hearts are still afraid” (Divo Barsotti).
To defeat this fear we can go back to the many passages in the Bible where there is an invitation not to be afraid, not to fear. For example, let’s think of Peter walking on waters to meet Jesus. At a certain point he gave in to the fear of the wind and waves and started sinking. Then he found the outstretched hand on him that raised him up, forgave him and gave him new strength.
All this encourages us to have hope and not fear, trust and not despair.
One way to experience this important “how”, this hope, is the one of the Consecrated Virgins in the world. These women are committed to live their virginity because in this way they await for Christ with full hope. In love with Christ like “wives” who have not seen the bridegroom for a long time, they wait for him every day not only with hope, but also with anxiety and passion. Every day they pray to see Him return and to meet Him forever. These women live virginity with complete dedication because virginity keeps the soul awake and tense to Christ. They engage in frequent prayer, made in silence, to keep a watchful heart. Doing so, they show us how our whole person should reach out to the Lord, who comes to us, gives himself to us and revives us.
Patristic Reading: Saint Augustin of Hyppo
Sermon XLVII. [XCVII. Ben.]
On the words of the gospel, Mk 13,32 “But of that day or that hour knoweth no one, not even the angels in Heaven, neither the son, but the Father.
1). The advice, Brethren, which ye have just heard Scripture give, when it tells us to watch for the last day, every one should think of as concerning his own last day; lest haply when ye judge or think the last day of the world to be far distant, ye slumber with respect to your own last day. Ye have heard what Jesus said concerning the last day of this world, “That neither the Angels of heaven, nor the Son knew it, but the Father.”1 Where indeed there is a great difficulty, lest understanding this in a carnal way, we think that the Father knoweth anything which the Son knoweth not. For indeed when He said, “the Father knoweth it;” He said this because in the Father the Son also knoweth it. For what is there in a day which was not made by the Word, by whom the day was made? Let no one then search out for the last Day, when it is to be; but let us watch all by our good lives, lest the last day of any one of us find us unprepared, and such as anyone shall depart hence on his last day, such he be found in the last day of the world. Nothing will then assist thee which thou shalt not have done here. His own works will succour, or his own works will overwhelm every one.
2. And how have we in the Psalm sung unto the Lord, “Lord, have mercy on me, for man hath trodden me down”? He is called a man who lives after the manner of men. For it is said to them who live after God, “Ye are gods, and ye are all the children of the Most High.”3 But to the reprobate, who were called to be the sons of God, and who wished rather to be men, that is, to live after the manner of men, he says, “But ye shall die like men, and fall as one of the princes.”4 For that man is mortal, ought to avail for his instruction, not for boasting. Whereupon does a worm that is to die on the morrow boast himself? I speak to your love, Brethren; proud mortals ought to be made blush by the devil. For he, though proud, is yet immortal; he is a spirit, though a malignant one. The last day is kept in store for him at the end as his punishment; nevertheless he is not subject to the death to which we are subject. But man heard the sentence, “Thou shalt surely die.”5 Let him make a good use of his punishment. What is that I have said, “Let him make a good use of his punishment”? Let him not by that from which he received his punishment fall into pride; let him acknowledge that he is mortal, and let it break down his elation. Let him hear it said to him, “Why is earth and ashes proud?”6 Even if the devil is proud, he is not “earth and ashes.” Therefore was it said, “But ye shall die like men, and shall fall as one of the princes.”7 Ye do not consider that ye are mortals, and ye are proud as the devil. Let man then make a good use of his punishment, Brethren; let him make a good use of his evil, that he may make advancement to his good. Who does not know, that the necessity of our dying is a punishment; and the more grievous, that we know not when? The punishment is certain, the hour uncertain; and of that punishment alone are we certain in the ordinary course of human affairs.
3. All else of ours, both good and evil, is uncertain; death alone is certain. What is this that I say? A child is conceived, perhaps it will be born, perhaps it will be an untimely birth. So it is uncertain: Perhaps he will grow up, perhaps he will not grow up; perhaps he will grow old, perhaps he will not grow old; perhaps he will be rich, perhaps poor; perhaps he will be distinguished, perhaps abased; perhaps he will have children, perhaps he will not; perhaps he will marry, perhaps not; and so on, whatever else among good things you may name. Now look too at the evils of life: Perhaps he will have sickness, perhaps he will have not; perhaps he will be stung by a serpent, perhaps not; perhaps she will be devoured by a wild beast, perhaps he will not. And so look at all evils; everywhere is there a “perhaps it will be,” and “perhaps it will not.” But canst thou say, “Perhaps he will die,” and “perhaps he will not die”? As when medical men examine an illness, and ascertain that it is fatal, they make this announcement; “He will die, he will not get over this.” So from the moment of a man’s birth, it may be said, “He will not get over this.” When he is born he begins to be ailing. When he dies, he ends indeed this ailment: but he knows not whether he does not fall into a worse. The rich man in the Gospel had ended his voluptuous ailment, he came to a tormenting one. But the poor man ended his ailment, and arrived at perfect health.9 But he made choice in this life of what he was to have hereafter; and what he reaped there, he sowed here. Therefore while we live we ought to watch, and to make choice of that which we may possess in the world to come.
4. Let us not love the world. It overwhelms its lovers, it conducts them to no good. We must rather labour in it that it seduce us not, than fear lest it should fall. Lo, the world falleth; the Christian standeth firm; because Christ doth not fall. For wherefore saith the Lord, “Rejoice, for that I have overcome the world”? We might answer Him if we pleased, “‘Rejoice,’ yes do Thou rejoice. If Thou ‘hast overcome,’ do thou rejoice. Why should we?” Why doth He say to us, “Rejoice;” but because it is for us that He hath overcome, for us hath fought? For wherein fought He? In that He took man’s nature upon Him. Take away His birth of a virgin, take away that He emptied Himself, “taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and found in fashion as a man;”11 take away this, and where is the combat, where the contest? Where the trial? Where the victory, which no battle has preceded? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was nothing made.”12 Could the Jews have crucified this Word? Could those impious men have mocked this Word? Could this Word have been buffeted? Could this Word have been crowned with thorns? But that He might suffer all this, “the Word was made flesh;”13 and after He had suffered all this, by rising again He “overcame.” So then He hath “overcome” for us, to whom He hath shown the assurance of His resurrection. Thou sayest then to God, “Have mercy upon the, O Lord, for man hath trodden me down.”14 Do not “tread down” thyself, and man will not overcome thee. For, lo, some powerful man alarms thee. By what does he alarm thee? “I will spoil thee, will condemn, will torture, will kill thee.” And thou criest, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord, for man hath trodden me down.” If thou say the truth, and mark thyself well, one dead “treads thee down,” because thou art afraid of the threats of a man; and man “treads thee down,” because thou wouldest not be afraid, unless thou wert a man. What is the remedy then? O man, cleave to God, by whom thou wast made a man; cleave fast to Him, put thy affiance in Him, call upon Him, let Him be thy strength. Say to Him, “In Thee, O Lord, is my strength.” And then thou shalt sing at the threatening of men; and what thou shalt sing hereafter, the Lord Himself telleth thee, “I will hope in God, I will not fear what man can do unto me.”15
1 (Mc 13,32
2 (Ps 55,2 Sept. (lvi. 1, English version).
3 (Ps 82,6).
4 (Ps 82,7
5 (Gn 2,17
6 (Si 10,9
7 (Ps 82,7
8 Vid. Serm. xxvii (lxxvii. Ben). 14 (x)..
9 (Lc 16,22
10 (Jn 16,33
11 (Ph 2,7
12 (Jn 1,1 Jn 1,3
13 (Jn 1,14
14 (Ps 55,2 Sept. (lvi. 1, English version)).
15 (Ps 56,11