“Excita, quaesumus, Domine, tuorum fidelium voluntates… Stir up the wills of your people, O Lord…”.
Thus begins the Collect for Holy Mass for this 24th and Last Sunday after Pentecost.
In a few short days, shorter and shorter in the Northern Hemisphere, we will again come to Advent and a new liturgical year. Meanwhile, this Sunday is nicknamed “Stir Up Sunday”, because of the English tradition of having everyone in the family, perhaps with friends and neighbors, take turns stirring together the many ingredients that go into preparing the rich and savory Christmas Pudding.
We Catholics are always excited to look ahead, even if what we see being stirred up on the horizon is ominous. This is because of our confidence that this is the time when, in His ineffable plan for the cosmos, He chose for us to come into being. This is our time, come what may. The greater the challenges, the greater the graces, the greater the honor and joy.
Our context for the Gospel reading is the Mount Olivet Discourse, which has parallels in the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 24-25, Mark 13 and Luke 21.
We have on this Last Sunday of the liturgical year a long selection dealing with the “end of the world” from Matthew, from the Olivet Discourse just before the Lord’s Passion begins.
For your context, always important, Christ had mere days before He made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday. He cleansed the Temple and cursed the fig tree, taught in many parables, denounced the scribes and Pharisees, and – as Luke recounts – He uttered his poignant lament over Jerusalem.
On the Mount of Olives there is a place where tradition has it that the Lord looked out over Jerusalem and wept over the future destruction of the city which would come in AD 70 by the Romans. The little Church “Dominus Flevit… the Lord wept” marks the spot. As the priest celebrates Holy Mass ad orientem at that little church’s altar, he can look through a window directly across the valley to the Temple Mount.
The Olivet Discourse, our reading, is filled with apocalyptic language, which makes it appropriate for this Last Sunday. As we dovetail into Advent, which is more about the Second Coming of the Lord than it is about His First Coming, we are as a Church reflecting on the Four Last Things and about the End Times.
The Matthew passage sounds as if Christ was talking about the future end of the world even while as He predicted the coming destruction of the Temple. We must always remember with the Lord that He, like Daniel whom He cites, also was a Prophet. As such, Christ used language and imagery like a prophet: upheavals and heavenly events and so forth. He talked about the Son on Man coming in power and glory as lightning that flashes from the East to the West. This is His Second Coming, upon which we seriously reflect during Advent.
At the same time, we can tell that Christ was also discoursing about something that was going to occur before the coming of the Son of Man at the end. How is this? He warned people that when the time came they should drop everything and flee to the mountains. He told them to pray that their flight be not in winter, when moving quickly would be hard, or on the sabbath, when it was forbidden to walk more than a short distance (v. 16-20).
If the Lord was talking strictly about the end of the world, it wouldn’t make any difference if they fled Jerusalem or not, if it were the sabbath or not, winter or not. Hence, He was at least talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. His dire warnings would be fulfilled in terms even more terrifying than His bare words in the Gospels predicted.
According to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus (+c. 100) as well as modern scholars, the Romans enslaved some 100,000 and the area around the city was denuded of trees for the crucifixions of the survivors, some 500 per day. Nearly one million died. Not a stone was left on stone of the Temple. It was the “end of the world”.
Indeed, for the Jews who couldn’t flee that was the end of the world, not just physical but also figuratively. The Lord’s two-fold prophecy blends together two destructions.
For the Jews, the Temple was designed to be a representation of the entire cosmos. It had courtyards decorated with carved palms, representing the land. There was a huge bronze water basin called the Sea, for ritual purification. The inner court was divided by a great curtain decorated with the constellations, like Heaven. Inside the inner court was the Holy of Holies, where God’s presence rested when the Ark had been there. The Temple was like the summation of and center of creation. All sacrifice was carried out there and only there for the Jews. The destruction of the Temple was truly the destruction of their universe, the end of the world, land, waters, and heavens. It was, as the Lord echoing Daniel projects, the “abomination of desolation”, that is, the sacrilegious repression of the Temple sacrifices. Of course, all those sacrifices foreshadowed Christ, and were fulfilled and replaced by Him, the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world.
Our Mother the Church is the greatest expert on humanity there has ever been. She knows that we need to consider the end times, our personal end in our coming to Christ and the end of the world in Christ’s coming to it. We approach these themes with honest and understandable trepidation. However, we are also filled with the Christian hope presaged by the often dour Jeremiah, which we sing in this Sunday’s Introit chant: “The Lord says: “I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction. You shall call upon Me, and I will hear you; and I will bring back your captivity from all places” (Jer 29).
After the exile in Babylon, the people did return home to rebuild under Nehemiah and Ezra. They rediscovered the books of the “old religion” and, after exile and repression, rebuilt, a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.
On Sunday we will hear what Paul wrote to the Colossians, probably written during his first imprisonment in Rome:
“May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.” (vv. 1:11-12)
What ever it is that the Lord is stirring up for us in the upcoming liturgical year, let us savor the plan He has wrought and make the best and most joyful use possible of the celebration of the sacred mysteries we are so privileged to have.