There is always a great deal of emotion in anticipation of “the day,” whether that be a wedding day, the first day of vacation, opening day at the ballpark or the day of discharge from the service—to name but a few important days in the lives of many of us. In such cases, not only is the day enjoyed for itself; it also promises many more wonderful days in the future. On the other hand, there are some days that strike fear and dread in our hearts, such as the day we lose our job, the day of the death of a loved one, the day we are sent out to fight a war. These days thrust us into sadness and struggle with little or no light at the end of the tunnel.
The Day of the Lord was always a day of anticipation for the people of ancient Israel. Originally it was perceived as a day of fulfillment. It was the moment in history when all of the promises made by God would come to completion, and the people of God would enjoy them forever, promises of peace and prosperity, of contentment and harmony. Many of the prophets looked forward to that day and described it in terms that remind us of the garden of Eden before Adam and Eve sinned and were driven out. Jesus claimed that this long-awaited day was dawning as he inaugurated the reign of God.
But the sinfulness of the people required that there be a period of purging before that fulfillment could come to pass. For this reason, some of the prophets warned that the Day of the Lord would first be a day of suffering. They even compared that suffering to the pangs that preceded birth, a symbol of new life coming out of suffering. In fact, such suffering was sometimes referred to as the “birth pangs of the messiah.” Today’s readings focus on the painful aspects of “that day.”
The prophet Malachi shows us both dimensions of that future day. For the sinful, it will be a day of fiery purification; for the righteous, it will be a day of healing. The Gospel reading is quite explicit about the suffering that will take place. The description found there may have originally been written to exhort the persecuted Christians to remain faithful regardless of the cost. They were encouraged to perceive their very real distress as the purification that would precede the coming of the final age of fulfillment.
Like all the Bible’s depictions of the future, these descriptions are symbolic in nature. They are meant to inspire believers to derive whatever good they can from life’s inevitable suffering. Contrary to what some people might think, they do not point to specific historical occurrences; they are not blueprints of the events taking place in our own world. Rather, they are goads meant to spur us on with steadfastness. “By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
The early Christians believed that after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, he would return and bring all things to completion. Some, it seems, felt that since the day of fulfillment had already dawned with the coming of Jesus, all they had to do was wait for his return. It is this attitude that Paul criticized. He placed himself before the Thessalonians as an example to follow. He worked hard and was a burden to no one. So should they all work, and if anyone refused to do so, they should not be allowed to live off of the community: “neither should that one eat.” In other words, Christians must assume their fair share of responsibility in this world as they await the final dawning of the time of fulfillment.
Today’s readings reflect the suffering side of our faith, a faith that claims that God can bring life out of death. It also insists that the age of fulfillment, which is the age of new life, will not dawn until we are purified of our sinfulness. Thus life’s inescapable suffering, if accepted and endured in the spirit of Jesus, can act as a purifying agent. Today the challenge of acceptance and endurance is placed before us.
It is appropriate that we consider the advent of this age of fulfillment as the liturgical year comes to a close. During the year we have been led through the mysteries of death and resurrection, and now the drama of our faith is about to be brought to fulfillment. Today’s psalm reminds us just how this drama will end: “The Lord...comes to rule the earth; he will rule the world with justice and the peoples with equity.” Thus, though the readings focus on the suffering of “that day,” we are reminded that the final scene is one of victory and fulfillment. And lo, that day is surely coming.