“He hid the time from us so that we would be on the watch and so that each of us might think that the coming will happen in his own lifetime.” – St. Ephraem
Luke 21:25-38: ‘There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand.’ And he told them a parable, ‘Think of the fig tree and indeed every tree. As soon as you see them bud, you know that summer is now near. So with you when you see these things happening: know that the kingdom of God is near. I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with debauchery and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come down on every living man on the face of the earth. Stay awake, praying at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.’
In the daytime he would be in the Temple teaching, but would spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives. And from early morning the people would gather round him in the Temple to listen to him.
Christ the Lord In this second half of Jesus’ speech answering the question about when the destruction of the Temple would occur Jesus changes his imagery. He employs phrases and allusions that all of his Jewish listeners would have recognized as referring to the Day of the Lord that the Old Testament prophets had predicted. The Day of the Lord referred to the coming of the Messiah and the inauguration of the new Messianic Kingdom, which also included the end of the Old Covenant. From the Jewish perspective, this would be the line of demarcation for all human history. By making these allusions, therefore, Jesus associates the events that will occur in the first Christian generation (“Before this generation has passed away all will have taken place”) and conclude with the destruction of Jerusalem as that fateful Day of the Lord. But the Day of the Lord doesn’t end with the fall of the Temple; it is extended throughout the rest of human history. During that time, the experience of the first generations of Christians – persecution, growth, conversions of whole cities and cultures, wars and disasters – will be repeated by successive generations until Jesus comes again. So Jesus’ comments about those days apply to every age of the Church, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple at the end of Old Covenant history is a foreshadowing of the destruction of heaven and earth at the end of New Covenant history.
Jesus Christ is the Lord of history. When we read the history books and watch the daily news it may not seem so, but in reality he is. At some point in the future, the story that mankind has been putting together since the dawn of time will come to an end; the way things are will be radically changed. Thus the imagery Jesus provides of “signs” in the sun, the moon, and the waves of the sea indicate that the stable order of the universe in which we make history will be uprooted and history will end. When that happens, Christ’s Lordship will be fully manifest to everyone (he will come again in “a cloud with power and great glory”) and will bring to fruition his eternal reign. All human history is moving towards that final, climactic moment. Everyone’s personal contribution to the human story will be made known to all at the end, when the Lord renews heaven and earth and takes his place on the everlasting throne.
Christ the Teacher Jesus doesn’t tell us the exact day and hour of his second coming. He prefers for us to stay ready for it at every moment; this is the lesson of the fig tree. If we keep our hearts awake, resisting the sweet lullaby of earthly pleasures and concerns, we will recognize the signs of his approach and be prepared to greet him when he comes. He also warns us that we will have to face tribulations before we are able to stand before him in glory; it will not be easy to stay faithful to God throughout the trials of life. (Otherwise, why would he tell us to pray for “strength to survive all that is going to happen”?)
Though millennia have already passed without his appearance, his warnings are as urgent as ever. For even if another millennium or two unfold before history as a whole concludes, our personal histories have a much more predictable endpoint. As individuals, we could find ourselves standing before him any day. It is up to each one of us to heed his warnings now, before “that day is sprung on [us] suddenly, like a trap.” Every year the Church reminds us of this as the Solemnity of Christ the King concludes the liturgical year. We will have no one to blame but ourselves if we don’t take the reminders to heart – and that doesn’t mean shivering with fright and terror, but simply staying faithful to God’s will for our lives, the true source of joy and meaning both in time and in eternity.
Christ the Friend Jesus: Do you think I had fire and brimstone in my eyes when I spoke these warnings? Do you think I spoke them quietly, in intimate conversation with my disciples? You know that I never take pleasure in the destruction of sinners. I only seek their salvation, as I have sought yours. I wanted you to know what the human heart has always wondered about – the end of history will come, and I will make a new creation, and the justice that was not given during the course of your earthly life will be given, and my mercy will shine out in all of its infinite glory. I want you to know that, so that you are able to stand up to the trials that following me always brings with it. I know you trust me, but now you have one more reason to do so. You don’t have to fear the future; you already know what it holds. You can be ready, and be at peace, and you can dedicate yourself to loving me and loving those I give you to love. And even though I am with you all the time now, you can already start looking forward to that day when we will be together without the veil of faith.
Christ in My Life I have to thank you again for the gift of these Gospels. Here you speak to me directly – you who created me and love me more than I love myself. And you nourish my soul with the truth of your words and examples. Lord, I want to become an expert in the Gospels – not an academic expert, but a loving expert in knowing and following you, my Lord and my God…
It isn’t easy to stay ready, Lord. Why do you delay your coming? You don’t need to tell me – I already know. In your love and your wisdom you are waiting until the right moment. I want to live faithfully while my life lasts. I want to experience your love and your joy, and I want to spread it to those around me. Fill my heart with your grace and my mind with your truth…
I know that being faithful to you, to what is true and right and good, will bring trouble upon me, just as it brought trouble upon you. But you will never let me be tempted beyond my power to endure, and you will always give me whatever strength I need. I am not afraid, Lord. I keep seeing you on the cross, gazing down at me, telling me not to fear, telling me just to be faithful, courageous…
PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.
Art for this post on Luke 21:25-38: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Fig Tree, Mike Bogle, May 2006 own work, CCA-SA 2.5 Generic, Wikimedia Commons.