Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

Francis J. Caponi, O.S.A.
Villanova University
Villanova, Pennsylvania

Readings
Dn 12:1-3
Ps 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
Heb 10:11-14, 18
Mk 13:24-32

A few years back, I was returning to Philadelphia from the West Coast, on what was only my second trip across country by plane. Before we even reached 36,000 feet, we began to hit a good bit of turbulence. By the time we leveled off, the plane was shaking so much that they couldn’t serve any beverages. And every time the plane jumped and the overhead luggage banged, almost everyone I could see, and myself as well, did the same thing: we grabbed onto our chairs more tightly, set our feet on the floor more squarely and firmly, and tensed every muscle in our bodies. Then the captain’s soothing voice was heard throughout the cabin, as he apologized for the “inconvenience,” announced that there was no way to go around, above, or below the bad weather, and concluded that we would just push through it and everything would be okay.

I thought to myself, “Let me off. Give me a parachute and let me take my chances.” At least I thought I had said this to myself. But suddenly, people several rows to my front and rear began laughing, and the guy sitting next to me said, “I don’t think jumping is an option.” I was so nervous, I had said out loud what I was thinking.

Of course, getting off the plane would have been pointless. Even if I could have exited the plane safely, which is doubtful, at that altitude I would have suffocated from lack of oxygen before reaching the ground. But what all of us were doing was just as pointless: the grabbing of chair arms and planting of feet and tensing of muscles would, in the event of a crash, be meaningless. We instinctively tense in the face of an impact, but that instinct was developed in humans who lived on the ground and rarely ascended more than a few feet. It is not an instinct capable of offsetting the force of falling in a big metal box from 36,000 feet. But we do it anyway.

So is it with our lives and this world. Everything comes to an end. Empires fall, companies crash, neighborhoods change, customs are lost, old stories forgotten, and all of us age. Getting off the planet is not really a long-term option, even for astronauts. And even if it were, death comes to everyone. We carry our mortality with us down every road, in our frail bodies and minds. No rocket can leave our mortal state behind.

What is true of us is true of the skies. We know there was a time when our sun and his planets and every star we can see did not exist. We know there will come a time when they exist no more – perhaps long after any human eye is left to wonder at their splendor, but still they will pass as surely as we will.

Jesus knows all this, and tells his followers not to worry, but to prepare. None of us can make our lives a moment longer by worrying, but all of us can make our lives much deeper and richer by preparing for that which must come. Worry is pointless: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” When comes our end? Tomorrow, or twice tomorrow, or two hundred times twice tomorrow? We can not say. It is not given to us to know. Rather, Jesus tells us to look around and see the unmistakable truth of this world: Nothing lasts. Nothing is born that does not die, nothing is built that does not crumble. God alone offers us the hope of eternal life. Only God, who is everlasting, can make us so. Only God, who is all good, offers us the chance for unending happiness.

In this light, how do we spend our days? Preparing for the coming of the Son of Man, or, like passengers on a turbulent plane ride, desperately clinging to whatever comes to hand, grasping hold of the things of earth, gathering more and more, stuffing our silos and loading our hearts until they strain, like our closets and attics and garages, under the weight of things we do not need and never use yet will not part with? Several coins in the poor box are a better preparation for the end than a pyramid for a tomb, or an office with a view; not because we buy God’s love, but because giving to those in need is a sure preparation for that moment when our lives will end and we will be in absolute need and God will fill us with what He alone can give.

A visit to the hospital, a meal provided for the poor, an hour with those who grieve, some comfort for the brokenhearted, some support for those whose faith wavers, whose lives are cracked by addiction, whose hearts have been marred by violence – these are the way a Christian prepares for the final day. We give away what we cannot keep – time, money, energy – and prepare to receive what we cannot lose – heaven.

We can, of course, cling to our schedules, jealously guard our days and nights, and pretend the few years we have belong to us, that they are not God’s gift from start to end. We can latch on to our homes and careers and vacations and hobbies the way we cling to luggage in an airport, wary of theft, hostile to strangers. But if we do, on the last day how will recognize the Son of Man, who did not cling to his eternal peace but poured himself into our sinful world?

Let us hear the words of the Savior once more: “Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.” His words to us are mercy, compassion, and sacrifice. These are the gifts which loosen the grip of sin on our hearts, clear our vision, and allow us to stand upright, ready, and hopeful.