"It is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment" (Heb 9:27).
This Sunday's liturgy has an "eschatological" character. In other words, it speaks of the "ultimate realities" which concern the death of every human being and the end of the world. It speaks specifically of the Judgment. The responsorial psalm had us repeat the response: "The Lord comes to judge the earth", and it invites creation to praise God because "he comes to judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity" (Ps 98 :9).
It is significant that the Lord's coming has here nothing terrifying about it, but rather stresses the joy which fills all nature: the sea resounds, the rivers clap their hands, the mountains shout for joy (cf. Ps 98:9). People too are urged to enter into this joyful atmosphere: "Sing praise to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and melodious song. With trumpets and the sound of the horn sing joyfully before the King, the Lord" (Ps 98:5-6).
The definitive coming of God is Christ, the Gospel of salvation, in which humanity's eschatological waiting is fulfilled. The world and mankind who dwell in it are no longer condemned to death. The human being is no longer destined to return forever to that dust from which he was formed, but to present himself before the face of God and enter into eternal communion with him, thereby participating in his kingdom and his life.
An Invitation to Meditate on the Last Things
For this to come about, it is nonetheless necessary to cross the threshold of the judgment of God, to whom the individual's whole earthly life will be submitted.
The prophet Malachi expressed this truth concisely in the first reading: "Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire ... but for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays" (Mal 3:19-20). Here the two elements, fire and light, are combined with the announcement of the last judgment. Fire burns and purifies. Light illuminates and makes people rejoice in the beatific vision of God. But judgment comes at the end of each one's earthly pilgrimage. For him, to die also means in a certain sense to experience the end of the world.
This Sunday... invites us to meditate on the "last things", the "ultimate realities": death, judgment, heavenly reward, purgatory and hell. It could almost be said that it is a continuation of the Solemnity of All Saints and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed, which we celebrated at the beginning of this month of November.
The Gospel passage from Luke also has an eschatological character. However, it is not dominated by the theme of the end of the world but by the announcement of the destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus said, "as for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down" (Lk 21:6). Those who heard these words had seen with their own eyes the magnificence of the temple in Jerusalem. In fact, the Lord was announcing events which were relatively close in time. Indeed, it is well known that Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed in 70 A.D.
To the question: "Teacher when will this be, and what will be the sign that it is about to happen?" (Lk 21:7), Christ gave an answer that directly concerned the destruction of Jerusalem, but could also refer to the end of the world. He foretold wars and insurrections and warned against false messiahs. "Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, plagues and famines in various places, and in the sky fearful omens and great signs" (Lk 21:10-11).
Similar events accompanied the fall of Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans, but it can be said that they also happened in other ages of history. Has not our own age witnessed many wars and revolutions? The history of man and of humanity bear the mark of their eschatological destiny. The orientation of time towards the "ultimate realities" makes us aware that we have no lasting dwelling place on earth. Indeed, we are awaiting an eternal destiny consisting of that future world, the redeemed aeon, where justice and peace abide forever.
Christians in Every Age Face Trials
Certainly Christ's words also refer to the community of the first disciples. They would have to undergo difficult trials; they would be handed over to synagogues and be put in prison, dragged before kings and governors all because of his name (cf. Lk 21:12). He added immediately: "You will be brought to give witness on account of it" (ibid., 21:13). Christ, who was to say: "You shall be my witnesses ... to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8), stressed that here it is not a question of an easy witness but that it is all the more difficult because of the fact that all those who publicly profess their faith will be liable to persecution by their loved ones. "You will be delivered up even by your parents, brothers, relatives and friends, and some of you will be put to death. All will hate you for my name's sake" (Lk 21:16-17). Today we are listening yet again to these grave words which prepared the Apostles and the whole Church to face various trials, not only those encountered by Christians in the first century but also in our own.
At the same time, however, Christ did not present only to the disciples the prospect of hardship and trials. Although he spoke of a difficult witness, he immediately added: "I bid you resolve not to worry about your defense beforehand, for I will give you words and a wisdom which none of your adversaries can take exception to or contradict" (Lk 21:14-15). This promise has frequently been kept! By virtue of Christ's words, the Church became a "sign that is spoken against" (Lk 2:34), which progresses through history and guides believers on this way.
In many ages and in many places, Christians have been the object of hatred, persecution and extermination. They have nevertheless experienced the Redeemer's consoling promise: "Not a hair of your head will be harmed. By patient endurance you will save your lives" (Lk 21:18-19). Of course, it is not a question of saving their physical lives. It is enough to read the Acta Martyrum to realize that the great witnesses to Christ and the confessors of the faith were not spared their earthly lives. They went to meet death with great courage, aware that by dying for Christ they were in fact approaching the fullness of that divine life communicated to man by Christ through the paschal mystery.