Every year the Church has us read this Gospel from Saint Matthew on the last Sunday after Pentecost, and will have us begin the new Church year on the first Sunday of Advent with the parallel account from Saint Luke's Gospel -- there is also an account in Saint Mark's Gospel for those who wish to be thorough.1 And, as always, the thorough may benefit from reading the entire account in the Gospels, rather than just the abridged text we read at Mass.
In any event, the careful reader will realize that our Lord seems to be speaking about two different events: the destruction of Jerusalem, and the end of the world. It is not clear where one event ends and the other begins.
For the Jews of our Lord's time -- for virtually everyone who heard Him actually speak these words -- the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially the destruction of the Temple of the One True God, was about the same thing as the end of the world. To His listeners it was almost incomprehensible that life could go on without the holy city, and without God's Holy Presence in that one building on earth. If our Lord was predicting the destruction of Jerusalem within the lifetime of the generation that He was addressing, then, as far as they were concerned, He was predicting the end of everything else as well.
With historical hindsight, we know that our Lord's prediction of the end of Jerusalem came true, about a generation later, when the Romans Vespasian and Titus completely destroyed the city in the process of brutally putting down the revolt of the Jewish Zealots against Roman government. In the part of the Gospel we did not read today, our Lord predicts, figuratively, that there would "not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down"2 -- and the Roman soldiers came quite close to making that happen literally, smashing just about everything to pieces. Saint John makes no mention of the destruction of the Temple in his Gospel, by the way, because it had already taken place by the time he wrote it at the end of the century -- it was already past history in his time, as it is for us in our time.
Yet, somehow, even knowing that the events of the destruction of Jerusalem lie in our own distant past, it is not at all obvious that all of these events described in the synoptic Gospels are over and done with. The description of the "Son of Man coming ... with great power and majesty ... with the angels gathering the elect from the four winds" sounds ominously like the judgement day that we know to be in our future. But again, it is not clear where one event ends and the other begins.
We have a similar problem in the Apocalypse. That last book of the Bible was written by Saint John the Apostle while in exile from Roman persecution, in approximately the year 96. It is even more difficult to match up the events of the Apocalypse with the events we know or expect in our past, present, and future. It was written twenty-six years after the destruction of Jerusalem, but many Scripture scholars believe that some of the events of the Apocalypse refer to what had already taken place. It was written to the Christians of Asia Minor, who were presently suffering persecution; an encouragement to keep the Faith, assuring them that all things would pass, and ultimately the good would be rewarded and the evil punished. But the Apocalypse also contains things which must be in the future -- in the future of the Christians of Asia Minor, and in our own future.
When we read the Gospel passages we have been talking about today, as well as when we read the Apocalypse, it is only natural for us to try to fit the events they describe into our own history and into our own future.
The Apocalypse speaks, for example, about plagues sent by God for the chastisement of mankind. Depending upon where in history we might live, we might see in those plagues a cholera epidemic that took place long ago, or we might see the bubonic plague of the fourteenth century, or smallpox in the seventeenth, or maybe we will interpret the plague to be AIDS in our own time -- or maybe it will be something in our future, or maybe a number of things spread out over a number of years in the future -- we simply have no way to match the highly symbolical events of the book with the history we know or expect.
We have the same problem with these Gospels. Take, for example, "the abomination of desolation standing in the holy place." What is that? To our Lord's listeners, it might have been an event in the past; something out of the Book of Machabees, when the successors of Alexander the Great took over their land and desecrated the Temple. By the time of the Apocalypse, Jews could look back to the time when the Romans built a shrine to Jupiter where the Holy of Holies used to be (and another shrine to Jupiter in the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerazim, just for good measure). We might look back to something like the Moslem invasion of the Holy Land, or perhaps to the Protestant reformation and its destruction of churches and monasteries. We might see the abomination of desolation in our own time, with the widespread offering of sacrilegious Masses, or "masses" that are no Mass at all, or the proposed "interfaith shrine" at Fatima "where all the religions of the world will gather to pay homage to their various gods."3 Or, perhaps it is some other thing or things in our future.
Over the centuries, Christians have speculated a great deal about these prophetic passages. Usually, the speculation makes the assumption that the events of these Gospels and Apocalypse are taking place now; in whatever time the speculator lived. We may smile when we read old commentaries, assuring their readers that all of this referred to Atilla the Hun, or to the year 1000, or to the end of some "mystical age of creation" in the thirteenth century, or to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and the atomic bomb. It has always been easy -- in every age -- to look around, and assume that things are so bad that only the Second Coming of Christ can put them right.
So, why do we read these Gospels? What are we supposed to be doing? How can we know?
Well, of course, to be honest, the end of the world might come in our generation -- we are waging attacks on one of the countries mentioned in the Apocalypse -- and heavily arming another, where the final battle of the world may be expected to take place. So, of course we should be prepared for that possibility, every bit as much as people were prepared for it when Atilla and Genghis Khan, the Moslems and the Vikings, were having their way; every bit as much as people were prepared for it when the Black Death stalked Europe and Asia.
We should be prepared for it, precisely because our Lord tells us -- at least those who take the trouble to read thoroughly -- that "of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only." But we should always be prepared for Judgment day, because with absolute certainty it will come for us when our life on earth is done. No one hearing these words today will be here a century from now. The youngest of us might make another sixty years or so; many of us no more than fifteen or twenty. Our own personal end may come today when we get hit by a truck, or God alone (literally) knows what else.
Next week we begin the season of Advent -- traditionally, a season to prepare for Christmas, much like Lent prepares us for Easter -- a very good time to take stock of our spiritual situation. A very good time to make a careful examination of conscience and a good Confession; a good time to pray and fast and abstain from the unnecessary pleasures of the world around us; a good time to determine what changes need to be made in our life, so that by Christmas at the latest we are prepared to start the new year with a fresh outlook in our spiritual life.
If the events we read about in these Gospels seem a little frightening, that is only natural. The relatively unknown is always a bit daunting. But think of them not as a danger, but as a warning -- an opportunity to prepare for what we know inevitably must come -- an opportunity to face that day with confidence because we are in the state of grace -- the only way to avoid the absolute horror of an unprepared death.