33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – November 14, 2021
St. Paul – Lyons, KS
Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16:5, 8-11; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32
Readings Signs, Seeing Reality
As we draw near to the end of the Church’s liturgical year (the new year starts on the first Sunday of Advent), the readings focus on what’s called apocalyptic themes. The problem is that when we hear these passages, we think of apocalypse in terms our common understanding of it: the end of the world, nuclear disaster, death and destruction. We think apocalypse means “end of the world.” But in scripture, “apocalypse” has a very different and very specific meaning. Apocalypse means an unveiling. An apocalypse is when the veil is pulled back and we see what’s really going on.
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” What’s the lesson? “When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near.” The lesson is that you can look at a fig tree (or just the trees around town) and you immediately know what? The seasons are changing. We’re in the middle of Fall, Winter is coming soon. Easy! That’s an “apocalypse” of sorts. There are all of these “normal things” going on around us, but we can pull back the veil, we can see past the signs, we can interpret the signs and see reality: Fall is here, Winter is coming.
These readings, this Gospel, they’re not about the literal end of the world, but the end of the world-powers. They’re about how a greater power is coming to the stage. All throughout history we see powers throughout this world that seek and demand our allegiance, that dominate and control how we live, what we find important, what we focus and orient our lives on. But what Scripture is talking about, what Jesus is talking about, is the day when all of those powers, all of the world-powers will lose their power. Not the end of the world, just the end of the world-powers, the powers at play in the world that compete for dominance, the powers that we use to focus and orient our entire lives.
Enemy Occupied Territory
An image that has really helped me understand this is France from 1940 to 1944. Imagine you live in France in the early 1940’s. Your parents have been killed, family members imprisoned, your country overrun by a tyrannical, demonic dictator. Your army has capitulated. There’s no hope. No help is coming. That’s your life now.
Everything in your life is dominated by this. The Nazis and the Nazi occupation dominates your life, they demand your allegiance, control your life, dictate what you find important; they completely determine your focus, how your plan your day and orient your life.
At least that was your life until what? June 7, 1944. The paper boy is zipping through the town, a little more enthusiastic than usual. You’re drinking your coffee—bad coffee because, you know, the war. And the paper hits you right between the eyes, just like a ninja throwing star. And you open it, and in the one second that it takes you to read the headline—in one second, everything changes. Everything.
“Allied Armies Land in France.” Everything has changed. The world that you used to live in has ended, or at least has begun to fall. You look out your window and you still see the Nazi soldiers all around. But you can read the signs, you’ve learned the lesson of the fig tree. The soldiers are still there, but they’re uneasy, frantic, panicked. Over the next few days, they begin to pack up and move out. Shots are still being fired as they retreat, but they know it and you know it: the war is over, they have lost. That world has ended. The world you used to live in has come to an end.
The Apocalypse: End of the World-Powers, Not the World
Does this make sense? The world has not literally ended. But that world, the world of enemy occupied France—that world has come crashing down. Jesus and all of these readings are not trying to focus our attention on the literal end of the world,but the end of the world-powers. They’re about how a greater power is coming to the stage and is bringing an end to all of these things that used to control and dominate and orient our lives.
When Jesus is talking and giving these images that sound like the literal end of the world, he’s actually talking about the the end of the dominance of these powers—the darkening of the sun and the moon, the falling of the stars—the sun and moon and stars symbolize these powers. It will be the end of the dominance of these powers, or at least the end of our need to give our allegiance to them. Why? Because a greater power is coming to the stage—a stronger power has landed. And these powers are in retreat. Still fighting, but in full retreat.
Our “World”: The Powers That Orient and Focus Our Lives
Put this in very personal terms, then. What makes up your “world”? What are the “powers,” the things in your “world,” in your life that seek and demand your allegiance, that dominate and control how you live, what you find important, what you focus and orient your life on?
The past couple of years gave us a visceral and inescapable experience of this. When almost everything was cancelled and “normal” was tossed out the window—the “world” ended. And all of a sudden, each one of us could identify what had really been giving meaning and purpose to our lives. We could all point to very specific things that we had given our allegiance to, that dominated and controlled our lives, that determined what we found important and what we focused our lives on.
For starters, the election last year made this very clear. Everyone talked about the election as if it were a matter of life or death. That election betrayed our real thoughts, betrayed that we see political power as giving focus to our lives. When COVID shut everything down, we betrayed our thought that the American Dream gave meaning and purpose to our lives. Our jobs, making money, going on vacations, living “the good life“—when everything shut down, some people fell into a deep depression because all of these were gone. Sports! I knew high school kids that became suicidal because their season was cut short.How often do the sports our kids play determine our entire life? I know people that find it hard to make time for prayer or Mass, don’t feel like they can tithe to the church—but have no trouble paying thousands of dollars and spending hours and hours, weekend after weekend, at softball and football and volleyball practices and games for their kids.
Do you see what I mean? There are many many other examples. But with a little self-reflection, by looking at the signs in our life, by looking at where we spend our time and our energy and our money—we can start to see what power we give our allegiance to, what “world” we’re living in.
What If We Actually Believed Jesus Is King?
On the cross, Jesus didn’t just die to show us how much he loves us—that’s true, but that’s not all. On the cross, Jesus “lands at Normandy.” Jesus goes to war all of the powers that are vying for control of the world. Not the world powers of Rome and Egypt, but the reality behind these— “Learn a lesson from the fig tree.” Jesus goes to war with the powers that occupy this world, that determine our life: Jesus goes to war with the powers of Sin and Death. Death tries its best, seems to triumph—but is then defeated in the resurrection. Jesus didn’t come to defeat the puny world political powers, not the American Dream, and not even softball. Jesus came to defeat the world-powers of Sin and Death. And those powers are now in full retreat! Shots are still fired, people still think they have to live under the dominance of these powers—but no, it’s over. That world has ended.
What if we actually believed that? Again, the readings are not trying to focus our attention on the literal end of the world, but the end of the powers in the world that have dominated our lives for so long—and at their core, the powers of Sin and Death. Jesus’s death and resurrection signal, they are the great sign of the end of our need to focus and orient our lives on all the powers at work in the world. The cross and resurrection are an invitation to refocus and reorient our lives on him and his Paschal Mystery. We are invited to refocus and reorient our lives, center our entire lives on this great Mystery.
Stewardship: Refocusing and Reorienting Our Lives on the Paschal Mystery
The big question, though, is “how.” How do we center our life on the cross, on the Paschal Mystery? Sounds pretty abstract. And that’s why we point to the Stewardship Way of Life. Stewardship exists to make this very concrete and practical in our daily lives. Living Stewardship is our grateful response to all the things that Jesus has done. And in these small and concrete ways, we begin to learn how to orient our lives on Christ and on his power, not the powers of the world. The question throughout the Stewardship Way of Life is, again, where do we focus our lives, what orients our time and energy and money?
Time is the hardest. Do we take time to pray, to pray with scripture, come to Mass, go to confession, adoration? Do we take time to welcome and be hospitable to newcomers? Do we take time to learn about our faith, to be formed as Christian disciples? Do we take time to serve in the parish?
Talent and our energy is easy, because we love doing things we’re good at. But do we use our talents and energy in love of God and neighbor, or just for our own good? Are we always looking for ways to share our talents with others?
Treasure, our money—most of us will give if there is a need, but it’s much harder when we are called to give back to God out of gratitude alone. Most of us would be embarrassed to tip the waiter less than ten percent (and many of us probably tip closer to fifteen or twenty percent). But when it comes to God, we are very comfortable giving back, on average, two percent.
Stewardship, living out the Stewardship Way of Life, is a simple—simple but powerful way to begin to refocus and reorient our lives, our entire lives on the Lord, and on his Cross, his Paschal Mystery—to live as if Jesus actually has brought an end to all of the other powers in the world that demand our attention and allegiance.
Here at this Mass, we once again come to center our lives on the Lord in this intense and condensed way—beginning to center every aspect, every area of our life on the only power at work in the world that deserves our attention: the Paschal Mystery.