The Gospel According to St Luke for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time warns of destruction and persecution. Do we face the End Times or a summons to self-assessment?
You might remember Comet Shoemaker-Levy. The size of a major U.S. city, it was discovered and tracked by astronomers – for whom it was named – wandering through our solar system in the vicinity of Jupiter in March, 1993. A previous pass near the powerful gravity of Jupiter a year earlier broke the comet into a series of town-sized debris that ended up colliding with the giant planet.
It sent a thrill through the world of astronomy and a chill through just about everyone else. What gave Jupiter a mere black eye or two would have obliterated all life on Planet Earth. This was, for science, clear evidence that an extinction level event that wiped out the dinosaurs and most life on Earth 66 million years ago was more likely than not a comet or asteroid the size of a city.
Since 1993, the scientific evidence has become clearer. That asteroid exploded with the force of a million nuclear bombs in the sea near what is now, Mexico. The event triggered massive tidal waves, earthquakes, and a global rain of red-hot debris that blocked out all sunlight for decades. Most vegetation on the Planet was gone, and would take 700,000 years to regenerate.
On the outskirts of Colorado Springs recently, researchers uncovered thousands of fossils that show how the age of mammals arose from the dust and ashes of that event. The age of mammals was allowed to happen because the age of dinosaurs was put to an end by the collision. The fossil trove of mammalian species discovered near Colorado Springs demonstrates how life on Earth was reset through that event giving way, eventually, to us.
That, at least, is the analysis of geoscientists published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on October 21, 2019. According to the fossil record, it took 40,000 years for life in the sea to even begin to recover from the event.
So when Jesus addressed the crowd in the Gospel of St. Luke, He may have been prophetic when He said, “When these things begin to take place, look up.” Today’s listeners have a frame of reference:
- “And there will be signs in the sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations in perplexity with the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming in the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28).
The above passage is immediately preceded in Luke’s Gospel by the passages that constitute the Gospel proclamation for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, the penultimate Sunday liturgy of the Church’s Liturgical Year and the Sunday preceding the Solemnity of Christ the King. The Gospel verses immediately preceding the above passage – the one you will soon hear at Sunday Mass – are filled with the doomsday language about cosmic events:
- “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, famines, pestilences and great signs from heaven. But before this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons” (Luke 21:10-12).
Delivering us up to prisons? Lord, have mercy, not again!
SIGNS AND PERSECUTIONS
Carlos Caso-Rosendi is an accomplished linguist, translator, writer and historian. Writing from Buenos Aries, Argentina, the home of Pope Francis, Carlos penned a moving and incisive summary of the state of justice in my regard awhile back. It was a brief but powerful article published simultaneously in Portuguese, Spanish, and English entitled, “Behold the Man.”
Carlos also writes periodically for other venues including The Lepanto Institute, a Catholic organization that takes its name from the Battle of Lepanto, a naval battle fought on October 7, 1571 in the Gulf of Lepanto (now called the Gulf of Corinth). The battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League formed by Pope Julius II aligned the Papal States with Spain, Venice, and Genoa.
Though vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the Holy League was decisively victorious, but not without suffering the loss of many lives. The victory delivered thousands of Christian slaves and captured more than 100 ships. The battle was the first major victory of the Christians against the Ottoman Empire.
More recently, Carlos has been writing about “The Signs of the Times”, building a case for the emergence of the End Times that Jesus seems to be prophesying in the above Gospel passages. Many readers have been following his “End Time” posts. I would not even think of refuting Carlos in this. He could run circles around me with his knowledge of Prophetic literature, apocalyptic traditions, and original languages.
Several TSW readers have mentioned his posts with various levels of concern – and sometimes excitement – that Carlos might be entirely right. I do not know whether The End is near, but in a sense it is near for all of us and we should approach our days with an eye toward what may come, as Saint Paul warned, “like a thief in the night” (1 Thes. 5:2). It is folly to get caught up in the drama all around us when heaven awaits – or not, if nothing changes.
It is difficult to refute the End Time discourse raised by Carlos, but in this both science and our faith are on the same page. Life on Earth has ended before and the scientific odds are clear that it will happen again. It is generally agreed in science that the millions of similar comets and asteroids traveling randomly through space pose an existential threat to life on Earth. It is not a matter of whether Earth will again find itself in the crosshairs of a giant asteroid, but when.
And there are other doomsday scenarios set forth, not by Scripture, but by science. It is known today that the magnetic polarity of the Earth has shifted its positive and negative poles every few hundred thousand years. Magnetic North shifts its polarity to the South Pole. Earth is now about 100,000 years overdue for the next unpredictable shift. Our ancient ancestors may not have even noticed, but today our dependence on technology could leave us stranded in chaos for decades if global power grids and all computers suddenly became irreparably disabled by a global electromagnetic pulse.
THE TEMPLE AND THE COVENANT
I am also always aware of the multiple layers of meaning in the parables and teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. I do not discount the literal interpretation of Prophetic and Apocalyptic Literature in Sacred Scripture, but there are other, parallel meanings in the end-of-all-things scenario that St Luke’s Gospel describes.
The above Gospel passages presented by St Luke take place on the Mount of Olives and collectively they are known as the “Olivet Discourse.” The Mount of Olives is an ancient hill to the East of Jerusalem that overlooks the city across the Kidron Valley (see 2 Samuel 15:30 and Zechariah 14:40). The Mount was famous for the large number of olive trees that grew there in the time of Jesus.
As I addressed in another post, “Waking up in the Garden of Gethsemane,” the Mount of Olives was the scene of the betrayal of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it was the scene of His Ascension. A thousand years earlier, it was also the scene of the agony of King David after his betrayal by his son, Absalom. It is a scene of great Biblical importance for Hebrew and Christian ears.
The Gospel for the end of Ordinary Time begins with an observation by Jesus’ disciples about the “noble stones” that adorn the Temple in Jerusalem. They could be seen across the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives Herod the Great began an expansion of the Temple in 19 B.C. The Temple was immense, and its “noble stones” at its foundation are equally immense. Some measured forty feet in length.
Jesus tells his disciples that the indestructible appearance of the Temple is an illusion “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another” (Luke 21:6). A similar discourse also takes place in the Gospel of Matthew (24-25) and it too speaks of end times, cosmic catastrophes, heavenly signs, and the future judgment of God.
But looking at the words of Jesus in the context of his original hearers and the traditions of ancient Judaism provides a parallel meaning at the literal-historical level. Jesus was also speaking of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, symbolic of the Old Covenant. This places the entire “End Time” discourse in the context of His words about the Temple, the stones of which “shall not be left here one stone upon another.”
Hearing this at the Mount of Olives, the disciples of Jesus might recall something described in a recent post, “Pope Francis, President Trump, and the Rise of the Nones.” In 597 BC Babylonian invaders destroyed the Temple sending the Jews into exile.
As described in that post, King Cyrus gathered the Babylonians into an Empire and then ordered his army to restore what they had destroyed. In 538 B.C., King Cyrus restored the Jews to their Promised Land and rebuilt the Temple of Solomon. It was from this period that Messianic expectations permeated Israel.
Cyrus is strikingly referred to by the Prophet Isaiah as “the Lord’s Anointed” (Isaiah 45:1), a title that Israel previously reserved only for its kings and for the expectation of a Messiah. The prophecy of Jesus at the Mount of Olives was confirmed when Roman soldiers sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. claiming the lives of more than one million Jews.
THE IMAGE OF THE INVISIBLE GOD
The End Times discourse of Jesus may also have referred to the future destruction of the Temple by the Roman Empire in 70 A.D. The Jews regarded their Temple as a representation or microcosm of the world, an architectural model of the universe fashioned by God. The universe itself was seen by the Jews as a sort of “macrotemple,” the place where God presides and throughout which His Divine Presence permeates.
This is summarized in the Psalms “He built His sanctuary like the high heavens, like the earth which he founded forever” (Psalm 78:69). There are other Old Testament references to equating the Temple with the world. After the Genesis account of the creation of the world, God rested from all his work which he had done (Genesis 2:3). The Temple was seen as the sacred place of God’s rest. He commissioned the building of his Temple by Solomon as “his resting place forever” (Psalm 132:14 and 1 Chronicles 6:41).
The symbolism of the number “seven” also links the Temple with the Hebrew world view. In the Books of Job (38:4-6) and Amos (9:6) God’s creation of the world is described as a Temple completed and blessed on the seventh day. Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple in seven years (1 Kings 6:38) and dedicated it on the seventh month (1 Kings 8:2) during the seven day Feast of Booths – also known as the harvest Feast of the Ingathering (1 Kings 8:65).
The Prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Lord (Isaiah 6:1-7) makes a comparison that the Temple and the Cosmos are interchangeably filled with God’s glory. The train of God’s robe “fills the Temple” (Isaiah 6:1) and the angels cry out that “the whole earth is filled with his glory” (Isaiah 6:3). For the Prophet Isaiah, the Temple and the cosmos are both the house of God.
Other Jewish writers in the time of Jesus described in great detail the Temple as a model for the universe. The historians, Josephus and Philo, and the late rabbinic writings, described the Temple’s divisions, furnishings, and architecture as symbols of the cosmos, the celestial Temple.
The declarations of Jesus on the Mount of Olives in the Gospels of Saints Matthew and Luke may well portend the end of the world as Carlos Caso-Rosendi and others looking at End Time prophecy interpret them. I will not say they are wrong, for this world is most certainly turning its gaze away from God and back onto itself.
We are living in the age of humanity’s narcissism. The signs of the times certainly point to the possibility that we are witnessing the signs of an Apocalypse as large swaths of humanity desecrate the Covenant sealed with the Blood of Christ.
But the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple was also seen as an apocalypse. It was the symbolic termination of the Old Covenant and the rise of the New – in Jesus Himself. As I have written in some past posts, we live today in a spiritually very important time. Jesus is equidistant in time between us today and God’s First Covenant with Abraham.
The end may indeed be near, but regardless, life is too short to waste it in the folly of this world. Jesus is the epicenter of our time and is in Himself the Temple Covenant of Sacrifice with God. As the Second Reading for the upcoming Solemnity of Christ the King proclaims:
- “He is the image of the Invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible” (Colossians 1:1-2).
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Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post and Subscribe to These Stone Walls. You may also like to read and share these related posts:
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