As might be expected (particularly among those of us who have been around for a few year), the readings for the last few weeks of Ordinary Time and the beginning of Advent focus our attention on what theologians call the “eschaton” or the “parousia.” This kind of literature falls into a category which is called “apocalyptic.” Our response to apocalyptic literature depends upon our experience of the one who delivers it. Oftentimes we find ourselves frightened by it because of the images the speaker uses. However, if we remember that Jesus and the others who deliver these messages are speaking for God, perhaps we can read these passages without fear. After all, more times than we can count on our fingers, we have been told that we should “be not afraid.” There is really no need for fear if we accept the basic, underlying message of Apocalyptic literature; namely, that we need to be ready.
Every once in a while someone pops up on our radar screen and warns us that “the end is near.” They try to convince us that they know the exact time when Jesus will return and we will experience the end of the world. This has happened so many times in our human history that it is somewhat perplexing to me that anyone would actually believe the message. Yet I cannot deny that some people actually drain their bank accounts and max out their credit cards because they believe that they will never have to pay the bills. Others react by quitting their jobs and selling their homes. Groups of people have gathered and awaited Jesus’ return together. Yet here we are, still waiting.
Our experience is no different today than it was in the time of St. Paul. The First Letter to the Thessalonians was written in just such a situation. Once St. Paul had founded a Christian community in Thessalonika and moved on to the next town, others began tearing down what St. Paul had built up. This letter tells us that one of the arguments they used in destroying St. Paul’s efforts was by trying to get the believers to lose heart by telling them that Jesus had already returned and that they had missed the event. There would be no triumph of faith for them, and their loved one who had died would never experience the salvation which Jesus had promised upon his return. They even went so far as to forge a letter under St. Paul’s signature attesting to this fact.
St. Paul’s reaction to this is one of dismay. Much of his First Letter to the Thessalonians is an attempt to refute these arguments. Here we are almost two thousand years later, and efforts such as those of St. Paul’s opponents are still trying to get us to lose heart and give in to despair.
This is the context in which we hear the words of St. Paul this morning. We can read the Gospel in a similar context. Yes, a day will come when the Master will return. Yes, we will be surprised when it happens. Yes, we will be called upon to make an accounting of our service of the Gospel. Yes, we will be judged based upon that accounting. However, need we be afraid of that day?
How we answer that question depends upon one thing only. Will we be ready? If we are ready, then we have nothing to fear. The God who has loved us throughout our days, the God in whom we have put our faith, the God who has protected us throughout our lives, the God who has blessed us with many good gifts will not become a vengeful and angry God at the end of time. God’s love is constant; God is not capricious. Those of us who are ready for God’s return will be met by a gracious and merciful, forgiving God who will be anything but frightening.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M., Administrator