Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Luke places Jesus’ discourse about the destruction of the temple and his coming at the end of the world immediately before the narrative of his death and resurrection. In the present passage Jesus uses cosmic symbolic images of the prophetic tradition to indicate the final divine action in history at the end of the world. Before the Son of Man comes in a cloud with power and glory, there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars. The coming of the Son of Man in power and glory means that the final redemption is at hand. Jesus then issues a warning lest our hearts become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness or from anxieties of daily life. If we are not vigilant, the final day will catch us by surprise like a trap. Jesus tells us to pray for the strength to escape the ever-imminent tribulation so that we may stand erect with raised heads at his coming.
The gospel passage addresses the terrifying experience of one’s world coming to an end—not only the final end of world, but also of our individual worlds such as our financial security, our marriage, our health, our life in dying. These are terrifying experiences not only because of the physical suffering they may entail, but because the tribulation may lead to despair about the meaning of life itself.
Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900) anticipated that total loss of meaning which now seems to be so pervasive in our culture when he proclaimed: “God is dead…Do we not wander through an endless nothingness?” Ernest Hemingway (d. 1961) in one of his short stories has a character express the despair of the loss of meaning in a prayer without meaning: “Our nada (Spanish word for ‘nothing’) who art in nada, nada be thy name…” and “Hail Nothing, full of nothing, nothing is with thee…” Steven Weinberg, a 1979 Nobel Prize winner for physics, writes: “…this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible the more it also seems pointless” (The First Three Minutes).
Jesus, too, had the experience of his own world coming to an end—his arrest, suffering and death were imminent. He, however, had the courage to face the loss of his life in hope because he trusted that God would not abandon his beloved Son to the meaningless nothing of death. Jesus, identifying himself with all creation as God’s dwelling place, realized that with his death would also come the end of the temple and the world. In the biblical tradition temple and the universe were inseparably joined. God created the universe as a temple for his children to enjoy and for worship on the seventh day. In turn, the temple was the universe in miniature also created for Sabbath worship and joy. We fallen creatures, however, had turned his Father’s house of prayer –the temple and the universe—into a den of thieves.
The old creation of temple and world in a sense would already come to an end with the death of Jesus. The Romans in response to a Jewish revolt in fact destroyed Jerusalem and the temple in the year 70. The end, however, in the mystery of God’s creative love would at the same time be the beginning of a new creation—first in the resurrection of Jesus, and then in the creation of a new spiritual temple, a New Jerusalem, a new heaven, and a new earth (Rev 21).
Advent is a time of vigilance and prayer. We ask for the gift of sharing the hope and courage of Christ so that we can with his trust face the terrifying experience of our own world falling apart. Jesus is the leader and perfector of our faith. Following him, for the sake of the joy that is before us, we will endure the cross, despising its shame (Heb 12:2). The universe and our human existence in it are not pointless. We do not wander through an endless nothingness. Advent is also a celebration of the good news that the Risen Lord comes to be with us now—in the Eucharist, in the words of Scripture, in the Church, in the least of our brothers and sisters, in all our joys and sorrows. We will stand erect with raised heads at his coming because our redemption is at hand. “ ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.