Homily on the 33rd Sunday of Year C
November 14, 2010
Every time a catastrophe occurs, self-proclaimed prophets and diviners arise and immediately deduct apocalyptic conclusions. When the two commandeered commercial planes crushed into the World Trade Center, some people, for example, became instant numerologists, pointing to the recurrence of the number eleven: the tragedy occurred on September 11, exactly 111 days before the year 2001 ended; the passengers were on the American Airlines flight No 11; the twin-towers look like No. 11 from a distance; and both have 110 floors; Sept 11 is the 254th day of the year, and 2+5+4 equals 11; and if you write Sept 11 in numbers and add them up (9-1-1), the sum you get is 11. That is to say that the calamitous event—for those who see apocalyptic meanings in numbers--was not accidental; the exact time came for it to pass, it being a part of a larger plan cooked up in heaven that only God knows. Others were no less ingenious; they referred to an alleged prediction by the 16th century French astrologer and seer Michael de Notredame (Nostradamus): “In the City of York there will be a great collapse, twin brothers torn apart by chaos. While the fortress falls, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the city is burning.” One notes, of course, that the “prediction” is almost so accurate that it could have only been a creation of an imaginative Nostradamus enthusiast.
But the Bible has been inexhaustibly used in the apocalyptic deductions from current historical events, and this is very true of the Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) today and its parallels. This selection is a discourse on the destruction of the temple and its distinction from the end of the world and the eventual return of Christ. In it Jesus said that before the Judgment Day nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and that there would be earthquakes, famines, pestilence and signs from heaven (vv 11-12). Many, however, read this out of context, and in association with the books of Daniel and Revelation, used it to interpret fearful events and catastrophes and began to claim to have discovered the exact date, concealed in Scriptures from the many but known only to a privileged few like them, when the world comes to an end. In 1991, a TV channel in the US, in one of its religious programs, calculated that the beginning of the crack of doom coincided with the crisis in the Persian Gulf on the basis of Daniel and the apocalyptic discourse of the Lord. Of course, in recent history, we have this long line of prophets who pretended to have known the exact date of the Lord’s return. One recalls, for instance, William Miller who set the date of the second coming in 1843, and then on October 22, 1844, awaited by some 50,000 Adventists, and they were greatly disappointed. Or Charles Russell, founder of what became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who taught that the end would come in 1914, during the First World War, confident that “millions now alive will never die.”
It is of interest to note that all these predictions are based on a certain reading of Scriptures. But for one not initiated to studying them, what is puzzling is that, even when these claimants to prophetic knowledge read the same scriptural text, they give different interpretations and dates. And what is more baffling, they always get it wrong, as the fact that we are still alive proves. The reason for this is not difficult to determine, however. In the first place, these attempts to date the end of the world are founded on an overly literal and symbolic interpretation of the Bible. But even more fundamental than this, they rest on a failure to understand the nature of the biblical book or the Bible itself and the intention of the writer of the book or passage on which they anchor their predictions. To begin with, what a particular passage means depends on the nature of the form of literature. Unlike scientific history, for example, a fable cannot be taken as historical. What poetry conveys cannot be put on the same level as what prose has to say. That is why we speak of the truth of poetry, the truth of history, and the truth of fiction—all of them conveying a certain truth, but not in the same way and degree. When a lover says, “I can give you my whole heart and soul,” that is poetry which cannot be put in prose without distorting its meaning.
The same is true with the present scripture text. If one were to interpret Luke 21:10-19 literally, one might say that the second coming, clearly distinct in Luke from the fall of Jerusalem, would be preceded by wars, earthquakes, plagues and famine, fearful omens in the sky and persecutions. When such events happen, one may not be surprised that many, with a literalist interpretation, will raise the question of whether they are seeing the fulfillment of the Lord’s prediction. But the text is not about prediction of the things to come; rather, it is about interpretation of events Luke’s community was confronted with. That interpretation is clothed with a literary genre called apocalyptic, found in such books as Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation, among others. In this genre, the interpretation of an event is characterized by an extravagant use of various images, symbols, signs and figures of speech, taken from contemporary literature. It usually deals with cosmic transformation that precedes the day of the Lord, with the assurance that those who remain faithful to the end will participate in God’s victory, even if the present realities seem to show the powerlessness of God over his enemies, and those who persecuted his people will face the inevitable judgment. Thus the 1st Reading: “The day is coming… when all the proud and all evildoers will stubble… but for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal 4:1-2a).
If today’s Gospel, therefore, speaks of wars, cosmic changes, and persecutions, they are not to be taken as signs of the impending end, but as literary medium, taken from contemporary literature, to express the theological message that those who carry on the cause of Christ, amid threats, persecutions, and imprisonment, can always expect to suffer setbacks, and they can even experience the feeling of the absence of God when they cry for help. Ultimately, however, they have the assurance that, for all the appearance of the forces of evil gaining the upper hand, the triumph of what is right and salvation for those who remained faithful to the end is certain. For this reason, those who take up the cause of God in Christ must hold fast to the end. “By patient endurance you will save your lives” (Luke 21:19). Consequently, they must not be afraid to bear witness to God’s love. On the contrary, the assurance of victory should animate them to labor for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is relevant to point out that the Second Vatican Council says something to this effect: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (Gaudium et spes, 39).