The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Watch: He Will Come in Glory

Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when He comes and knocks. Blessed are those servants whom the master finds vigilant on His return.

Luke 12:35–37

God created the world in one perfect act, the first chapter in a long, long story, and we are assured that His providence is always with everything He made; that a sparrow does not fall without God’s provident knowledge (Matthew 10:31). Nature has no story that is not God’s own will. But every man, possessed of the freedom that is the presupposition of knowledge, love, and obedience, has a story that is his or her own. God knows us in our mother’s womb (Isaiah 44:2), and He guides us on our way. Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily wrote: “Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary.”

We each possess a precious gift, a life created to give Him glory, but also for the companionship that may through His condescending love exist between a creature made from dust and the Eternal Majesty. He did not cling to His divinity but humbled himself to become man (Philippians 2:8). We know that God was present to our first parents in the Garden; they saw Him and heard His voice, and this original companionship is the clue to our destiny. After we declined His offer so much did He want to know us that He came among us in Christ, who is God of God and also our brother. In the end we will see Him in glory, and not only see Him but know the comfort of the hand that will wipe away the tears born of the pain of life and as well, we may hope, tears of repentance. There will be judgement, for the eternal rightness must be vindicated, but for those who are in Christ there will be no condemnation, rather, “Come ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom” (Romans 8:1, Matthew 25:34).

We are set on our journey with the charge that we must bring back to God what He gave us: one life. Perhaps the homiletic topic least popular presently is the reality around which today’s Gospel from the twelfth chapter of Luke is constructed: the return of Christ in judgement, bringing blessing and punishment. That this will occur we have from our Lord’s own mouth; His return will be like lightning encompassing the sky (Matthew 24:27), bringing every soul into the light of His presence. Christ will return, Paul assures the Thessalonians, with the voice of the archangel and the trumpet of God (4:16). This image was the favorite of the mosaicists who made glorious Roman churches, their apses typically depicting Christ returning, with Peter and Paul going out to meet him. The Blessed Apostle Peter writes that the heavens that now exist have been stored up for fire. The Day of the Lord, promised by the prophets, will come with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved by fire (II Peter 3:3–10). This is the fire Paul described in his first letter to the Corinthians. Like the flood in the day of Noah which purified the world, “Each man’s work will become manifest for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each man has done” (I Corinthians 3:15). Paul’s image of the trying of souls by purifying fire reiterates the words of Jesus: “His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He will clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the granary, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire (Matthew 3:12). More typically this event is depicted as the great assizes of Matthew 25:32, when the nations shall be gathered before God’s throne in what the Church has always recognized as the General Judgement; this solemn scene is routinely displayed over the central portal of thirteenth-century Cathedrals, where one finds in stone the vision of the Last Day given in Matthew 26, with the blessed on Christ’s right hand and the desolate on His left.

Whichever of these images one chooses, the meaning is the same and is inescapable. This world and each person in it is moving toward that judgementt which as it satisfies the eternal justice alone gives meaning to life and which determines the eternal destiny of each soul born into this world. The parable of the talents says something about opportunity in this world, but fundamentally it is about the use of grace. The Gospel for this Sunday refines that message by teaching that the making of our very selves pleasing to our Master day by day while we await His return, unannounced, on any day is the great vocation. The advice that His return will be like the coming of a thief in the night, when it is least expected, is among the most-quoted in the literature of the early Church.

In the parables from Luke there were those who waited faithfully, laboring to build a life acceptable to Him, with whom, in words reminiscent of the great promise of Revelation 21:3–4, the Master when He returns will recline at table and wait upon them. But there were others who, forgetting to watch for the Master’s return; quite naturally fell into a life of drunkenness, the ultimate inattention, and violence, the path of life that lies outside justice. Vigilant or forgetful, these determine our lives in this world and hence necessarily in the next.

This truth that Christ will return is not part of the post-modern story. For this there are reasons that while they do not excuse render this blindness intelligible. There is what another Bacon might call the idolum physicae, the idol of physics, physics being now the paradigm for scientia or science. A great delusion: in principle science can know nothing about the beginning and the end, those intersections of time with some greater mystery that lie at the origin of all things and at the consummation, for the scientific enterprise is by its very nature time-bound. Nor can it provide more than hints about the meaning of the process it studies, although it may offer helpful intimations along the lines of Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion or William Paley’s Natural Theology. But because it interprets and manipulates so successfully, and often beneficially, all the vast process that lies between the beginning and the end, the belief that science is truth, the Bible a dream, flourishes, the mark of the knowing Modern.

There is also the idolum technae, idolatry of the abstract world bred by technology, with its capacity to create the illusion of control, to make a virtual world of images, and with its powers and with those images to enchant and to distract, encouraging the belief that the technological hand upon nature will produce progressively nothing but good things, issuing perhaps, just perhaps, in the abolishing of death, And with the successes of technology come the illusion that, pain having been banished, perhaps the human dimension of struggle and sacrifice, of bearing and enduring, soon will cease being the stuff of life. The mastery of nature has created a culture of comfort in which, at least in the decaying West, all those intimations of finitude, for large numbers, have been if not silenced at least muted. Most of us will not die in a plague or at the hands of an invading army. Typically our diseases can be managed into febrile old age, and when pain comes there are ways to meliorate and indeed, increasingly, ways to exit. Who can but be grateful for a pain-free life, but what place has “take up your cross” in such a world, a world in which the deliberate forming of the soul for Christ through discipline and duty and suffering seems unreal.

This is the intellectual environment in which belief that Christ will come again, always an act of faith, can be made to seem an act of fantasy. And not to forget the skepticism regarding the return of Jesus that has been encouraged within His own household by the not inconsiderable school of theologians who have since the late-nineteenth-century argued that the evident testimony of the Bible and the Fathers that Jesus promised to return in glory is a misreading of the text. His promised coming has not been long delayed; it was never promised.

This is the climate of ideas in which vigilantly watching and ordering of life in the light of the return of the Master seems as foolish as it seemed to Celsus in the second century, Julian and Salustius in the fourth. But it is at the heart of the Gospel, connecting hope with reality, reminding us day by day of what matters. Before Jesus promised the Spirit, before He commissioned a ministry that was to endure to the end of the age, John the Baptist said, “Repent.” Jesus sat down on the Mount of Olives and described the coming of the Son of Man in graphic detail that has ever after inhabited Christian imagination.

“Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with great glory. Look up, lift up your heads, for your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28). The Day of God will be a day of wrath for those who have despoiled the great gift of life, but for those who are in Christ it is fulfilment.

O Love that will not let me go,
I give Thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths
Its flow may richer, fuller be.

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