This Sunday is as high and as dark as it gets.
The liturgical year has a lot of high points — birthdays, Easter, Marian days. It also has dark moments — Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and the Beheading of John the Baptist.
This Sunday, the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, is as high and as dark as it gets.
It is dark because we learn that nothing around us will last.
“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper,” wrote T.S. Eliot. He may have had this Sunday’s Gospel in mind.
Pointing to the Temple, the pride of Jerusalem built of massive stones the size of cars, Jesus says, “All that you see here — the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
He added, “They will seize and persecute you, they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons, and they will have you led before kings and governors because of my name.”
Jesus is echoing the first reading, which says, “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch, says the LORD of hosts. But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
It would be a comforting reading if it were not so terrifying. Some of us will be healed by the rays of the rising sun and some will be burned up — as the pretense that we are masters of our own fate will go up in smoke.
The first thing to learn from this is where to put our trust.
We may have thought that the things we devoted to God will stay. They won’t. There is only a wall of the giant Temple of Jerusalm left, the great Monte Cassino monastery was bombed to bits. Notre Dame Cathedral burned up in a time of peace.
Maybe we think family will stay. But even our families can be turned against us. That is what happened in Soviet Russia, where children were taught to revere Pavlik Morozov, the boy who turned on his father. It happened in China, were the one-child policy brought family turmoil, abductions, forced abortions, and child deaths before and after birth. It also happens in consumerist economies, where families separate to pursue money far away from each other, and divorce is rampant.
Even nature will be destroyed and changed beyond all recognition, by the earthquakes, floods and tectonic shifts that have reshaped the map for millennia.
What on earth will last? God alone —and us.
“Nature is fleeting; we will outlive it,” C.S. Lewis wrote. “Even when all suns and mists are gone, each one of us will still be alive.”
We think our life is a blip in the vast history of the world. We are wrong.
We are not a blip of nature. We are the one permanent thing we see.
Each of us will one day see the victory predicted in the Psalm, “Let the sea and what fills it resound, the world and those who dwell in it; let the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout with them for joy Before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to rule the earth, he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity.”
It will be painful to see everything as we know it end, but it will be the greatest joy imaginable to see God’s order restored — if we are among the just.
In a fitting message for late November, St. Paul tells the Thessalonians in the Second Reading what life on earth looks like for the just who expect the Spring.
“You know how one must imitate us. For we did not act in a disorderly way among you,” he writes. “On the contrary, in toil and drudgery, night and day we worked, so as not to burden any of you.”
The Good News is that, after this world disappears, an even better one will take its place.
C.S. Lewis described what happens next: “Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it.”
The beauty of this world will disappear, but also its ugliness. Once the world passes away, we won’t be in a strange inhuman wasteland. We will be in our true home, finally and forever. As the Catechism puts it, we will be “glorified in body and soul, and the material universe itself will be transformed.”
It won’t be a place that feels awkward and takes getting used to. It will be more natural than nature. And it will never pass away.