November 15 2015 (B) 33rd Sunday of the Year

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Last Things

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Daniel 12:1-3). When the time comes, your own people will be spared. There are two main sections in the Book of Daniel. Chapters 1-6 contain narratives, court stories, concerning Daniel and his three companions in the court of the Babylonian kings during the exile, showing how their God protected them in times of trial. The second section, chapter 7-12 contains visions given to Daniel concerning the future fate of world empires. They all culminate in the persecution of the Greek king Antiochus Epiphanes (god manifest), his profanation of the Jewish Temple and attempt to utterly destroy the Jewish religion. The purpose of the work is to confirm the faith of the persecuted, and give the message that the persecutor will be destroyed without any need of recourse to armed resistance. The book can be rather accurately dated between 167 and 164 B. C, probably in 164, and before the death of Antiochus in 163. The visions class the work as apocalyptic, in which future divine events tended to be foretold, predictions often not fulfilled. This did not perturb the writers of this literature, who probably knew that the actual fulfilment of such predictions rested with God.

            Today’s reading contains one such prediction about the end time, a time of great distress culminating with profession of faith in a bodily resurrection. This is the first time that such profession of faith in a bodily resurrection occurs in the Bible. (It is found in a slightly earlier apocalyptic text of the Book of Enoch.) While early Israel had a keen perception of the presence of God with his people in the Temple and of his care for them, as well as a deep desire of union with God in their lives, down the centuries they did not concern themselves with union with God after death. They did believe, as surrounding Semitic nations did, in a certain survival of the individual, but only as a shade in Sheol, without reward or punishment, a shade too feeble for one or the other. There are a few texts in the biblical books with possible reference to a union with God after death. Two or three centuries before the book of Daniel the author of the book of Ecclesiastes (Koheleth) seems to have reflected on death and the human person and beast. He sees little difference between their ends. “The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity. All are from the one place; all are from dust, and all turn to dust again” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20). And as if he had a little doubt on the matter, he continues: “Who knows whether the human spirit goes upward and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth?” The question of the believer’s union with God and whether this terminated at death would not go away. It became more acute with the fate of the many martyrs during the persecution of Antiochus in 167-164 BC, culminating in the belief in the bodily resurrection and a happy afterlife with God for his faithful servants. For the author of the Book of Enoch this may have been a pious wish. For the author of thr book of Daniel, and the Jewish religion he represented, it was divine revelation, that became an accepted tenet in Judaism, particularly among the Pharisees, but not among the Sadducees. It was affirmed by Jesus against the Sadducees (Mark 12:18-27; Matthew 22:23-33; Luke 20:27-40), and became more central still with the resurrection of Jesus, as “first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20).

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 15[16]). Preserve me God, I take refuge in you.

Second Reading (Hebrews 10:11-14, 18). By virtue of one single offering, he has achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. This reading continues the theme of Christ as the true priest seated at God’s right hand. The Jewish priests stood at their daily offerings for sin. Jesus, as foreshadowed in Psalm 109 (110), was told by the Father: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool” (Psalm 110:1). As priest he is seated at God’s right hand awaiting fulfilment of this prophecy. He has achieved the forgiveness of sin by the single offering of his death and resurrection. Here the biblical text inserts the prophecy of Jeremiah on the New Covenant (omitted in the lectionary), ending with the words: “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more”, leading to our text’s final statement: When all sins have been forgiven, there can be no more sin offering”. This is to be understood in the overall context of the message of the epistle: Jesus’ single sacrifice, offered once for all, suffices for the forgiveness of sins. The text does not imply that there is no more sin among mortals or believers. In fact the letter to the Hebrews is very much about avoiding sin, especially the sin of unbelief.

Gospel (Mark 13:24-32). He shall gather his chosen from the four winds. This reading is better understood within the context of the long discourse of Jesus of which it forms part. In the Temple area itself one of his disciples expressed to Jesus how impressed he was by the magnificent masonry of the Temple. Jesus replied that not one stone will be left on another of these great buildings. Then opposite the Temple on the Mount of Olives (a site suited for revelations on the end time) four of the early disciples ask Jesus to tell them as to when this will be and what would be the signs that all these things are about to be accomplished. Jesus replied on the signs preceding the destruction of the Temple and passes on to speak of the final judgment by himself, as the Son of Man. His words on the destruction of the Temple (spoken in the year 30 or 33) were fulfilled in the destruction by the Romans in 70 AD, during the generation to which he spoke. In the tradition of apocalyptic thinking and writing he speaks of signs preceding the end, as if the final end were near. However, he also knows and notes that the exact hour of the fulfilment of his words depends on God the Father, and is known only to him, not to Jesus himself or to anyone else. The message throughout is the call to be aware and always prepared for the final judgment.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day: The Last Things

It is desirable that the central truths of faith are put before the Sunday congregations in connection with the Scripture readings, or at least the liturgical texts. This is not always easy; in fact it is rarely so. There are, however, certain occasions in which it is possible, in fact indicated, such as the mystery of the Incarnation (Jesus as God and human) at Christmas, the Blessed Trinity. This particular Sunday presents an ideal opportunity of speaking of the Last Things.

            The “Last Things” were traditionally regarded as four: death, judgment, hell and heaven. It is advisable to go beyond these and to treat of the final elements of the Apostles Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting”. It presents an opportunity to consider these with the aid of their treatment in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), nos. 988-1050, which gives references to the relevant sections of the documents of the Vatican Council. These documents are available online, and links are given to them here.

            Whether there is any afterlife is something that most people will experience as they grow older, or find themselves near the end of life. When asked the question one has mainly to say that most believers are in the same position. The answer depends to a good extent on one’s faith. One does not arrive at conviction on the matter from reason or sentiment alone. Faith in the Church, and in Christ’s resurrection and all it stands for supplies the answer: belief in Christ implies union of believers with Christ after death. Death in a Christian sense is not the end: at death life is changed, not ended.

            The doctrine on the resurrection can supply a certain corrective to the desire of so many in our day for immediate answers in some matters of faith. There is development of doctrine. Belief in bodily resurrection came very late in Israelite history, long after Abraham, the prophets Isaiah (700 BC), Jeremiah (600 BC) and others. The belief was further refined in later generations in the Church as problems arose. A Greek mentality would prefer eternal life without bodily resurrection, but Christian tradition resisted this.

            Various questions arise today concerning a number of traditional beliefs regarding the last things, in consideration of which the essential truth must be distinguished from the manner in which they were presented or understood in Christian teaching or imagination. For instance Purgatory, where the essential doctrine is the age-old belief in the value of the prayers of the living for the dead; regarding hell, the essential belief that lives of unrepented sin will be punished after death in the next life. And thus for so many other questions, on which the Catechism of the Catholic Church may be worth consulting.

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