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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Homily for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B) By Fr Munachi E. Ezeogu, CSSp

Daniel 12:1-3, Hebrews 10:11-14, 18, Mark 13:24-32

On the Gospel: The Good News of the Last Days

But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
(Mark 13:24-25)

In 1999, in the month of July, Pope John Paul II shocked the Christian world when he made the following statements in his Wednesday audience:

Heaven, or the happiness in which we will find ourselves, is neither an abstraction nor a physical place in the clouds, but a personal relation [with God]. ... This final condition can be anticipated in a certain sense now on earth.... Moreover, the pictures of Hell given to us in Sacred Scripture must be correctly interpreted. They express the total frustration and emptiness of a life without God. More than a place, Hell is the state of the one who freely and finally removes himself from God, the source of life and joy.

Why did the Pope deem it necessary to offer this kind of clarification at this time? I think that the Pope was responding to two popular but erroneous ways of looking at biblical texts that have to do with the End Times, namely, rationalism and literalism. We shall illustrate by looking at today's gospel reading on the End Times from the rationalistic and literalistic points of view, and then we shall point out what the passage can say to us when we read it as the Good News that it is intended to be.

A rationalistic approach will read this passage as the mistaken belief of early Christians that the End Times were just around the corner. But it was a mistake, pure and simple, and that is all we can learn from it. Their associated beliefs that heaven was a physical place in the clouds, and that from there Christ would come back, that stars would fall from the sky, even though we now know that one star is indeed bigger that planet earth, and the belief that earth was a four-cornered flat surface, have all been proven to be wrong by advances in modern science. Conclusion: this is an outdated text that has no value to us, and heaven is nothing but a figment of their primitive imaginations.

A literalistic reading, on the other hand, would treat our passage as a factual prediction of future events that will mark the End Times. If the Bible says heaven is somewhere in the clouds, then heaven is somewhere in the clouds. Maybe the clouds in question are so high above that our astronauts who have been to the moon have not seen it and cannot see it even with their powerful telescopes. As regards Jesus' saying to his hearers: "Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place" (Mark 13:30), literalists quickly abandon literalism and argue that the evangelist who wrote these things certainly misunderstood what Jesus said, since Jesus could not be wrong. Some of them go on and make concrete plans about meeting Jesus in the clouds, like the unfortunate members of the Heaven's Gate cult who had carefully packed their cabin luggage for their heavenward flight in a comet. Or like the Korean woman who aborted her unborn baby because, how could she rapture and fly in mid-air with all the extra weight of pregnancy?

Rejecting both rationalism and literalism, the Pope pointed out to us a third way, namely, to recognise these texts as graphic depictions of a gospel message that is always relevant to people of every age and culture. Read in this way, we can pick out these important messages that the text has for us and for people of every generation. Firstly, this world is passing away. Life in this world is like an overvalued high-tech stock that is bound to crash sooner or later. So why should anyone have all their assets in this one stock? It is, therefore, an invitation for us to invest wisely, to invest in things out of this world, to invest in the stock of the kingdom of God.

Secondly, God, the Righteous One will come some day, i.e. the Last Day, to right all the wrongs of this world. Because the world as we know it is a world where often enough innocent people suffer and evil people prosper. Good people may indeed sleep better at night, but bad people seem to enjoy the waking hours more. If that is all there is to life, then why would anybody want to be good and upright rather than bad and smart? The Good News of the End Times assures us that in the final analysis, evil will catch up with the evildoer, and justice will again be just. This will be in the kingdom of God for which this life is only a preparation. As we say the Lord's Prayer today, let us mean it when we say "Thy kingdom come."

On the Epistle: New Temple, New Sacrifice

The Letter to the Hebrews is believed to have been written fairly late in the first century, between ad 80 and 90. By this time, Jerusalem had been destroyed, the Temple was no more, so also was the priesthood that served it. Why then does Hebrews focus so much on the Temple and the priesthood?

When the Temple was standing, the Jews believed that there was only one spot on the earth where God lived as in a house. That spot was the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was compared to a King's palace. God lived in the palace, seated on His throne, in the holy of holies. The priests were His ministers, the intermediaries between God and the people. They brought the people's word to God and brought God's word back to the people. The Temple was the centre of the Jewish religion.

When, therefore, Jerusalem together with the Temple was destroyed in the year ad 70 by the Roman army under Titus, the Jewish people had a serious crisis of faith. How would they maintain their religious and national identity without the Temple? This was a problem for all Jews, both those that believed in the new covenant under Christ and those that upheld the old covenant under Moses. They all worshipped in the Temple until it was destroyed. Their response to the question of how they could carry on their religious obligations of sacrifice without the Temple took two forms.

First, there was the moral response. Here the temple was reinterpreted to be the throne of God in the depths of the believer's soul. Every believer was seen as a priest who could offer acceptable sacrifices to God by the daily personal sacrifices involved in loving God and loving one's neighbour. The brick and mortar temple does not matter. What matters is to worship God in spirit and in truth. This new understanding of temple worship was supported by the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman by Jacob's well who asked Jesus about the right temple in which to worship God.

"Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." 21 Jesus said to her, "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. ... 23 The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, ... 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." (John 4:20-24)

The second response was the Christological response. Here Christ was seen a the fulfilment of the Temple. The entire Temple religious establishment was seen as a prototype, an imperfect beta release in order to find and fix the bugs before releasing the final, stable version. The real thing, the real sacrifice that reconciles humanity with God is the sacrifice of Jesus Christ himself. Support for this new understanding of the temple and the priesthood is found in the dialogue between Jesus and the Jewish leaders following Jesus' cleansing of the Temple.

Jesus answered them, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." 20 The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?" 21 But he was speaking of the temple of his body. (John 2:19-21)

The Letter to the Hebrews represents this alternative reinterpretation of Temple. In today's second reading, Hebrews gives three reasons why the priesthood of Jesus is to be preferred to that of the former Temple priests. 

Every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins. 12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, "he sat down at the right hand of God." (Hebrews 10:11-13)

Firstly, the Temple priests stood, which signifies an unfinished business. Christ sits down at God's right hand, which signifies that the business is finished. Secondly, the temple priests offered their sacrifices day after day. Christ offered his sacrifice once and for all. And finally, Temple sacrifice was ineffective, it could not take away sins. Christ's sacrifice was effective, "For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified" (verse 14).
Sacrifice is regarded as the most important act of worship in any religion. As Christians today, do we have a sacrifice? Yes, we can make the one sacrifice of Christ on Calvary our own. This we do as a family when we gather together for the Eucharist, a sacrifice of thanksgiving. On a personal level, we make daily sacrifices in the living temples of our bodies, on the altar of God living within us, when we give up our self-seeking interests, our pleasures and our own will to do what pleases God and our neighbour. For "you are God's temple and God's Spirit dwells in you" (1 Corinthians 3:16, 2 Corinthians 6:16).

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