The readings today leave most Catholics ill at ease and puzzled, and they often relegate their message to fundamentalist television evangelists shouting about the coming end of the world. Malachi thought that the day of the Lord was coming, and it did not come; Jesus says that “this generation will not pass away” until all the predictions about the return of the Son of Man will be fulfilled (Lk. 21:32), and Paul expected to be alive at the return of Jesus. But all these expectations were not fulfilled, and even the most ardent millennialists today are constantly revising their timetable. Though it surfaces at intervals throughout history, a sense that the world is about to end, followed by the return of Jesus, has never been part of the mainstream of Catholic thought. We live between the times, not in anticipation of the end of time. T. S. Eliot may better express our consciousness: “This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper” (“The Hollow Men”).
Of all the Evangelists, Luke grappled most with the tradition of an imminent Second Coming. As this expectation begins to wane, Luke adapts older tradition to a growing sense that discipleship would be played out over the long course of history—somewhat awkwardly, since the proverb that not a hair on your head will be harmed follows a prediction of execution! He tells Christians to take up their cross daily (9:33) while they pray for their daily bread, every day (11:3). In today’s Gospel, Jesus shifts the focus to the need for faithful witness and assures the disciples of God’s protection at times of persecution. In Luke (as in John) the Spirit will guide the church during the time of Jesus’ absence—Jesus remembered and Jesus present, rather than expected, shapes their communities.
Still, during this Advent more than any in recent history, Jesus’ predictions of the destruction of the Temple, war and natural disaster—all bringing persecution in their wake—seem hauntingly contemporary. Such language, called apocalyptic (“revelation of God’s plan for history”), flourished in the Bible in times of national crisis and often among persecuted people. Its purpose was not to foster speculation about when God would intervene, but to encourage dispirited people by proclaiming that God is in control of history and that punishment of the wicked will come about by God’s doing, not by acts of human vengeance. This literature provides an alternate view of history, from God’s side, and summons people to faith and hope.
Coming at the end of the “roaring 90’s,” the events of Sept. 11 and the following weeks have darkened the bright skies with threatening thunderclouds. A culture of fear pervades even preschool classes, heightened by round-the-clock media saturation. Though Jesus speaks of suffering still in the future, Luke’s community had already experienced the destruction of the Temple, the death of the first Apostles, and even betrayal by loved ones. Yet Luke’s Jesus promises them “words and a wisdom” to sustain them and says that their perseverance will save them.
As Luke gave words and wisdom to his community, the church is summoned at this critical time to find words of hope for the future and a wisdom that will guide our lives. A recent issue of this magazine (10/8) is a parade example of ethical guidelines for a fragile future, combined with a stirring message of hope on how to preach at a time of suffering. Today’s psalm response yearns for a God who will govern the world with justice and equity. As a community that embraces all people and all cultures, the church possesses a unique ability to hear the voices of suffering in all languages and to see the image of God in people of every creed and color. Human suffering and even human sin can also offer a kairos, a privileged time for renewal, reflection and new directions that may give birth to the hope that “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal. 3:23).