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Sunday, November 22nd, 2020

‘Sicut enim fulgur’: a Homily for the Last Sunday After Pentecost

For as the lightning comes from the East and shines as far as the West,
so will be the coming of the Son of Man (Matthew 24, 27)

The liturgical year does not end; it simply begins again. The greatest proof of that is in today’s Gospel. It is entirely Advent in its theme: indeed, the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent is simply the parallel passage of today’s Gospel. That is, between this weekend and next, we simply get the same lesson but from two different Evangelists: St Matthew today, St Luke next week. The liturgical color will change, but the mystery which the Church contemplates will be the same. 

But none of that is to say that the change is superfluous and illusory. And it is true that the missal calls today ‘the Last Sunday after Pentecost;’ that implies a certain end. But the point we are belaboring is that the transition from this liturgical season to the next is entirely seamless. 

At the center of today’s Gospel is the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem and the distress that will follow from it. One liturgical commenter puts it like this:

Jerusalem was the centre and symbol of the world; whence, in one sole prophetic vision, two distinct prophecies are united in today’s Gospel; the one concerning the siege and destruction of the Holy City by the Romans, the other relative to the end of the world. The fulfillment of the first is a pledge and sure guarantee to us that the second, too, will duly take place when the time comes.[1]    

Thus, while it may be the case that current events leave us a little more well disposed to see the apocalyptic side of the times, we do well to remember that Christ’s second coming is founded on theological certainty, not merely upon a natural sense of unrest and doom. To say it again, the end of all things is, in the last analysis, a revealed truth. And that is for consolation. 

That of course is why Catholics avoid any movements or figures who claim to have insight into the ending of times and seasons; we simply do not need them. ‘From the fig tree learn a parable,’ the Masters says. ‘When the branch thereof is now tender, you know that summer is nigh.’ Here, Our Lord suggests that the to the eyes of faith, the nearness of his coming will be as obvious as the change of seasons upon the trees. The baptized know and love the Gospel; they simply do not need any supplemental material to exercise their Christian vigilance.

A point bears repeating: the end of all things is a revealed, theological truth. Throughout history there may have been suspicions, intimations, and speculations. But the Gospel demonstrates that Christ is the Lord of history, and history is over when he says: ‘but for the sake of the elect, those days shall be shortened.’ In fact, according to the doctrine of St Paul, the world will miss the matter:

For you yourselves know perfectly well, that the day of the Lord shall so come, as a thief in the night. For when they shall say, peace and security; then shall sudden destruction come upon them.[2]   

No, friends, history itself is like a faithful servant—it continues working until the Master gives the order to cease, and not a moment sooner.

That being the case, that the latter days of history will be times of unparalleled distress is clear.

And that causes us to think of the martyrs. Today is the feast of St Cecelia, and she begins the liturgical procession of the winter virgin-martyrs. Between today and the beginning of February we will celebrate St Catherine of Alexandria, St Vivian, St Lucy, St Agnes, St Martina; St Agatha, St Apollonia.

What did the martyrs have when they stood their contests? Materially speaking, they had nothing. Especially in Rome, the condemned were often stripped of their wealth and property before their execution. But here is where today’s Gospel holds not only a sober lesson (as we have seen) but also a consoling one. In the middle of Our Lord’s discourse, we hear him describe his own coming, and it shall be as lightening—‘Even as lightening comes out of the east it appears as far as the west.’ Lightening, when it shines, is instantaneous and total. When Christ’s final advent arrives, that is how it will appear.

But in the meantime, we receive the action of grace. For their part, the martyrs had nothing purely human to rely upon; but they did have grace—that is, the direct, perfecting action of God in their lives. No defect of circumstance, no enemy however fierce—not even our own anxieties—can disrupt the lightening-like action of grace. And that brings us to the very point of the Catholic life: living so as to enjoy habitual, uninterrupted contact with God. That is the truth that shone like lightening upon the souls of the martyrs. Would that Catholics knew themselves to be the brethren of martyrs, and took comfort from the fact.

 


[1] Schuster, The Sacramentary, vol III, p 190.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 5, 2-3.

{Art Credit: Saint Cecelia (c 1626), Simon Vouet (1590-1649); Blanton Museum of Art}

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