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Ave Maria!
Last Sunday after Pentecost AD 2006

“When you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet....”[1]

[2]

Ordinary of the Mass
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    One of the major characteristics of Western literature is that events usually follow one another in chronological order—generally speaking, the events on the first pages come before the events on the last pages.  There are exceptions, though, on occasion, when a character has a “flash back” and the reader is treated to the knowledge of some event that took place in the past—yet, for the most part, events are presented in order, and the successful writer makes it clear to his readers if this sequence is being altered for some reason.

    In the Bible and other literary woks of the biblical period, we sometimes find a different kind of writing—a different literary “genre,” as they say.  We speak of “apocalyptic literature” when we refer to those writings of the biblical era which seem to contain a hidden message, communicated through symbols and fantastic dreams or visions, which are intelligible only to those who have been given special gifts of interpretation.  We might even use the word “gnostic” or “gnosticism” to refer to them, although we generally do not use this word for the inspired scriptures of the Bible.  The word “apocalyptic” comes from the Greek, Αποκάλυψις, which means “the lifting of a veil”—the brief display of something shrouded in mystery.[3]

    A notable characteristic of this “apocalyptic” style of writing is precisely that the sequence of events is extremely difficult to follow.  The last book of the Bible is called the Apocalypse because it is written in this “apocalyptic” style throughout.  It was written at the end of the apostolic era, for those then suffering persecution, but the events range all over the place, from the past destruction of Jerusalem, through the present, all the way to the end of the world.  Those who make the effort to read and understand it find themselves trying to identify which events in the book describe the past, the present, or the future—they are generally unsuccessful, unless they have some preconceived notion of things, and try to jam the events into their favorite scheme whether they belong there or not.

    Another school of thought suggests that apocalyptic literature is not intended to describe one particular time, or even one particular sequence of events.  The thought is advanced that an apocalypse is not a book for a particular time, but, rather, a book “for all times.”[4]

    Today’s Gospel seems to fit into the “apocalyptic” category.  The rest of Saint Matthew’s Gospel does not, but the last few verses of chapter twenty-three and the whole of chapter twenty-four, seem to fit the mold quite well.  Clearly, our Lord is describing both the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world.  The former event, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, would take place only about forty years after Jesus death, but we are at about two-thousand years and counting, and the end of the world has yet to take place.  One might try carefully to separate the events of this chapter into our past and our present and our future, but even though we have historical records of the destruction of Jerusalem, it is not completely possible to assign our Lord’s words exclusively to one event or the other.

    For example, the “abomination of desolation,” is a phrase that might belong to Jesus’ own past, present, or future time.  It is a prophecy found three times in the Old Testament book of Daniel (written during the exile of the Jews in Babylon):  “the victim and the sacrifice shall fail: and there shall be in the temple the abomination of desolation.... they shall defile the sanctuary of strength, and shall take away the continual sacrifice.”[5]

    By our Lord’s time, Daniel’s prophecy had already been fulfilled (about 150 years earlier), when one of the successor kings to Alexander the Great conquered Jerusalem, stopped the sacrifices of the Temple, and erected a statue to the false god Jupiter in the sanctuary.[6]

    But, equally well, our Lord could have been referring to the desolation of the Temple that would begin on the day of His crucifixion, when “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom” and the Shekinah, the divine presence of God no longer abode in that place.[7]

    Again, the “abomination of desolation” could well describe what happened in 70 AD when the Roman Emperor Titus put an end to the Temple sacrifices with its nearly complete destruction and the scattering of the Jewish priesthood.

    Perhaps our Lord was predicting something even farther in His future—our present—when many Catholic churches would be without the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.  Perhaps he was describing the apathy, and the invalidity, and the irreverence, and the sacrilege, and the utter stupidity of so many in our times—even among those nominally claiming to be His people.

    But, yet again, our Lord may have been speaking about some other “abomination of desolation,” tens or hundreds or thousands of years in our future.

    One might argue about which one of these various events was intended in today’s Gospel.  The smarter thing to do would be to see His words fulfilled in all of these events, including a few in the future that we might not be able to anticipate in our wildest imagination!

    The essence of our Lord’s prophecy comes toward the end of this chapter.  There are two verses which summarize the whole matter.  “Of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but the Father only” ... “Watch therefore, for you do not know at what hour the Lord is to come.”[8]

    The literal end of the world may come soon, or it may be many many years in the future.  But is that really significant for us as individuals trying to save our souls?  The youngest person hearing my voice today will most probably not be here eighty or ninety years from today—most of us won’t be here a lot sooner than that.  The end of our own personal “world” can come at any time, unexpected.  Our own personal “end of the world” can come in an enormous number of ways:  war, accident, famine, epidemic, illness, or just simply passing away in our sleep at a ripe old age.  It will come, at a time over which we have no control.

    Let me close with one brief suggestion.  Concerning that “abomination of desolation”:  The greatest desolation that anyone can experience is not the work of emperors and soldiers and generals;  not the loss of a church building to the worship of idols;  not the scandals caused by politicians, popes, bishops and priests;  not even the “autodemolition of the Church” and the “smoke of Satan” described by Pope Paul VI;  not even the work of the most crazed “liturgist.”

    The “abomination of desolation” to worry about is the one we might cause our selves—the desolation of separating one’s self from God—the desolation of apathy and unrepentant sin.  Don’t worry about the end of the world, but rather be ready for it when it comes personally.  Make a point of living continuously in the presence of God and His grace—and all of the rest will fall into order, and work itself out in God’s time.


NOTES:

[1]   Gospel:  Matthew xxiv: 15-35.

[2]   Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, by Francesco Hayez, 1791-1882,   http://blog.92y.org/images/collage/400px-Francesco_Hayez_017.jpg

[4]   I am indebted to a former parishioner, Mr. Matthew Rhodes, for this insight.

[5]   Daniel ix: 27 and xi: 31;  also xii: 11.

[6]   I Machabees i: 57.

[7]   Matthew xxvii: 51.

[8]   Matthew xxiv: 36 & 42.

 



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