In the 1750s, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch, later calling it the most liberating moment of his life. Most of us, of course, don’t have that luxury. I would feel lost without my watch. Like it or not, deadlines dominate my life, and clocks control my activities.
And then, of course, there is that distinctly modern consequence of globalization, the time zone! Years ago, when I was stationed in Canada, a country with 4½ time zones, I used to enjoy hearing the radio announcer proclaim: It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes, and 10:30 in Newfoundland. That last time zone was the inspiration for a famous cartoon of a man holding a sign in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”
Well, sooner or later, Christ will indeed come, that awesome judgment day, that dies irae, when, as we say in the Creed, Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But when that day will come remains uncertain , despite that cartoon and many others, and despite what many Christians throughout history have believed or wanted to believe – going all the way back to the very first generation of Christians.
Some of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about Christ’s coming that they expected him to arrive any day – or even thought that he had already arrived. And so, they figured, routine stuff - like working – didn’t matter anymore. It fell to Saint Paul to tell them they were wrong – and should go back to work.
Now to us that all may seem obvious. But there have always been those to whom the opposite has seemed obvious, people preoccupied with prophecies and revelations about the end of the world or some other imminent catastrophic event – as if the world doesn’t have enough problems of its own making, without looking for phony prophecies and special private revelations to explain them!
Jesus’ earthly life coincided with a period of peace in the Mediterranean world, which had been completely conquered by the power and might of imperial Rome. That pax romana - “the whole world being at peace” (as we say in the Christmas proclamation from the Roman Martyrology) – didn’t last, of course. First-century Israel had been relatively peaceful in Jesus’ time, but a few decades later it was the scene of a catastrophic rebellion, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. Followers of Jesus – eager for his final return – naturally saw that calamity as a portent of even greater woes to come.
Something similar happened when the Latin Roman Empire itself collapsed in the 5th century. In 410, when the city of Rome fell to a foreign enemy for the first time in almost 800 years, a traumatized Saint Jerome lamented, “The brightest light of the world is extinguished.” I don’t know if he was consciously channeling Saint Jerome, but in 1914 it was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey who famously warned as World War I began, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He was right, of course, about the civilizational suicide that was World War I, as was Jerome about the fall of Rome. But in neither case was it the end of the world. That means that, as his Church, we must continue to wait, with hope, for Christ’s final return.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sought to assure his disciples that Jerusalem’s impending destruction would not signal the end of the world. But his words were addressed to all centuries. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. As with the pax romana, untroubled, peaceful times have been the exception rather than the rule in human history. Hardly any period has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. The pre-World War I generation believed in peaceful progress. But the last 102 years – among the bloodiest and most destructive in all of human history – have surely falsified that belief.
And, no matter how much we may want to control time by ascribing special significance to our calamities, Jesus warns us not to make that mistake. Such things happen – for ordinary human reasons – and are not necessarily signs of anything else.
Jesus seems to be saying that we cannot know when the end will come and should not obsess about it. Instead, we have plenty of work to do in the meantime – and not just the ordinary working for a living of which Saint Paul spoke.
We do the kingdom of God’s work when we live as Jesus’ disciples, despite difficulties and even opposition. And, rather than obsessing about the end of the world, the kingdom of God’s work here and now commits us to care about the world and one another in the world.
Over the centuries, the Church has incorporated in her approach to the challenge of daily living in the world an understanding of how human beings are social and political by nature, how human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others and in association with others as fellow citizens. This results in many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy, and also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community. It challenges us to respond to one another and the world we live in seriously in a way that transcends simplistic slogans and emotional appeals.
Far from being signs of the end, Jesus suggests that the challenges we experience call us to perseverance, to go on believing and hoping and loving in the present no matter how far away the future coming of God’s kingdom may be. Whatever will happen at the end of history, we are invited to trust already now in the sun of justice, whose healing heat, as the prophet Malachi suggests, warms rather than burns.
Ultimately, what being a disciple is all about is that God has given us his divine Son, the sun of justice, Jesus, sent to save us and thanks to whom God is now near and not far, here not just there. Hence the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives and the crises and calamities that impact our society and the world at large – far from being obstacles to our experience of God or a stumbling block on our way to God’s kingdom – are really where God is actually acting and where he can be found.
Meanwhile, like Saint Paul, we need to focus on the present, getting ready for the future by who we are becoming by how we live, what we do, and how we do it.
Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 13, 2016.