Sanctification, perfection come through Christ

  • November 6, 2009

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) Nov. 15 (Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, 18; Mark 13:24-32)


Cosmic battles and rescuing heroes are usually the stuff of action movies and video games. But in the ancient world it was also the fervent hope and expectation of a brutally oppressed people.

The Jews of the second century BC were struggling with an oppressor bent on destroying the Jewish religion and culture. Antiochus Epiphanes was willing to use any method — however bloody and cruel — to achieve his goal.

The Jews were convinced that their situation was so precarious and the degree of human sin so great that only God could rescue them and restore the nation. They anticipated God’s intervention in the form of a cosmic battle led by angelic hosts. The dead would be raised, the wicked punished and the faithful rewarded. At the core of this passage is an exhortation to stand fast and be faithful. Those who refuse to forsake their spirituality and commitment to God are the ones who shine like the stars in heaven.

One of the greatest gifts we can give to humanity is to provide not only a good example of spiritual living but hope and encouragement to those who are faltering or disillusioned. In our own day perhaps the image of cosmic warfare is not helpful. It feeds all too easily into divisiveness and religious violence. At the same time, we are living in a time of great anti-religious and anti-spiritual pressures. Seldom before has there been such an urgent need to stand fast and be faithful to the values of compassion, justice and harmony with the Creator.

Continuing with the theme of the new spiritual order inaugurated by Jesus, the author of Hebrews stresses the definitive nature of the sacrifice of Christ. Our spiritual consciousness should be free of attempts to appease or placate God or morbid fear of punishment. Our sanctification and perfection come through Christ, and our attitude should be one of joyful and grateful acceptance of this gift. Rather than focusing on “being saved,” we should eagerly participate in our spiritual growth and transformation in the Lord. As the high priest and the one who has overcome Christ is our teacher, brother and guide rather than our judge.

Ancient people had a very different view of the cosmos and the created order. They believed that all earthly events — especially radical changes — were mirrored in the heavens. Comets, eclipses and the alignment of planets were all keys for reading the unfolding of history. The falling stars and failing sun are apocalyptic imagery and should not be taken literally — although astronomers do tell us that the sun will eventually burn out and grow cold a few million years from now. The focus of these verses is the return of Jesus and the end of one period of human history — an envisioned time of tallying the celestial ledgers.

The question of “when” was a burning concern for Christians in the first century. There was a fair amount of anxiety and a concern that the passage of time was encouraging moral and spiritual laxity. People engaged in an age-old habit: second-guessing God. We will always ponder over the enigmatic declaration of Jesus that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” It has passed away, and those things have not taken place. This verse has been troublesome for 2,000 years.

The solution — if we can call it that — is to focus on the next two verses. First of all, the words of Jesus are eternal and will never pass away despite what might happen in the world around us. Secondly, no one — not even Jesus — knows when these things are to take place. That is reserved for God the Father and any speculation on our part is out of line. There is no quick fix for the world’s problems and we cannot merely wait for Jesus to return to set things right.

Jesus invites us to read the signs all around us and join in God’s work. Wherever there are human needs and situations that cry out for justice, reconciliation, compassionate action and peacekeeping there is an opportunity for encountering the Lord.