Christ’s majesty coming in the clouds to judge the earth, as well as the formidable grandeur of the end of the world, banishes worldly concerns from our minds, revealing by its radiance the true goal of our life: eternity.
Gospel of the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jesus said to His disciples: 24 “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. 26 And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, 27 and then He will send out the Angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky. 28 Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that He is near, at the gates. 30 Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. 31 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. 32 But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mk 13:24-32).
I – The Grandeur of History Contemplated in View of the End
When a human life comes to an end, it takes on a special gravity, however banal it may apparently have been. Death – at least in former times it was so – plays the role of a corrective lens, showing in its true magnitude the value of each person’s life before God and his fellow men. In this sense, the splendour of the Catholic Church’s funeral pomp, tinged with nostalgia and illumined by hope, manifests the nobility of each baptized person who reaches the end of his or her earthly pilgrimage.
Our Good God has modelled the Liturgy so as to express, through the sacredness of its rites, the enormous importance the goodness or evil of each human act has in His eyes. And it is equally through His inspiration that the Liturgy highlights the majesty of history as it comes to an end.
For this reason, the concluding phase of the Liturgical Year is marked by the foretelling of the end of the world by the Divine Prophet in the Gospels, raising the minds of the faithful to serious, sublime and awe-inspiring considerations before the Solemnity of Christ the King. The end of history, sealed by the Son with power and glory, will be surrounded by unprecedented and astonishing events, thus constituting the loftiest horizon of all time.
II – The Most Majestic Event in History
At the beginning of the 13th chapter of St. Mark’s Gospel, Our Lord foretells the destruction of the Temple, after one of His disciples draws His attention to the beauty of the stones and the buildings: “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down” (13:2).
Impressed by this extraordinary prophecy, Peter, James, John and Andrew asked Him privately: “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign when these things are all to be accomplished?” (13:4). Based on motives of the most sublime wisdom, the Divine Master answers in a somewhat enigmatic way, announcing the persecutions that would be unleashed against Christians and the supernatural assistance that the Holy Spirit would grant them before the iniquitous tribunals.
Our Lord also reveals some signs that would indicate the future destruction of the Temple. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, He mentions the “abomination of desolation” (Mt 24:15; Mk 13:14) that was to be established there, while in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Lk 21:20-24) He presents a more concrete element: the city of Jerusalem surrounded by foreign troops as a sign of its imminent end, which occurred during the sack of the Holy City by the troops of General Titus, when the sacred edifice was burned and razed to the ground.
The expression “abomination of desolation” alludes to the prophecies of Daniel concerning the desecration of the Temple of Jerusalem by Antiochus Epiphanes with the placing of the statue of Zeus within it (cf. 1 Mc 1:54). If applied to the times of the Messiah, it could well mean the attempt to disfigure the Holy Church, as St. Paul explains: “for that day [the day of the Lord] will not come, unless the rebellion comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, proclaiming himself to be God” (2 Thes 2:3-4).
Yet the prophecies of Our Lord concern both proximate events, such as the fall of Jerusalem, and the end of history, when He will come with great power and glory. For us, who are subject to time, this way of prophesying is mysterious, like a series of slides superimposed to form a single image. This mystery, however, gives us an opportunity to understand that certain divine chastisements, although inflicted on humanity before the Parousia, bear the characteristic of definitive justice, which cannot be appealed, typical of the end of the world. There would thus be a sort of chain of events that are linked to the Last Judgement as celestial interventions of magnificent proportions. Bethsaida, for example, the town cursed by Our Lord in the Gospel (cf. Mt 11:21-22), would have already suffered the due punishment by being, in an impressive manner, virtually wiped from the map.
From this consideration, the course of history acquires, so to speak, a third dimension and a particular light, inasmuch as it witnesses to God’s righteous action, which will reach its culmination and totality when the Son of Man returns with His Angels.
Nevertheless, from the divine point of view, the panorama is different. For the Word of God, time does not exist; by His complete and concomitant knowledge, He contemplates the multiplicity of creatures and the variety of events in a single glance, which immediately and absolutely encompasses everything.
Armed with these presuppositions, our readers will be equipped to assimilate the new aspects presented in the commentary on the Gospel for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Even the stars will be shaken
Jesus said to His disciples: 24 “In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, 25 and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”
The shaking of the cosmos at the imminence of the glorious coming of Jesus Christ moves our minds to consider His absolute sovereignty and incalculable majesty. As St. Bede rightly states: “For the stars in the day of Judgement shall appear dim, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true star, that is, of the Supreme Judge.”1
The most stable components of creation tremble at the prospect of the great Judgement, in which rational beings – Angels and men – will be rewarded or punished. St. Michael the Archangel and his fiery legions will appear with the righteous of all ages, as well as Satan and his band of rebellious angels, together with those who have trampled on the Precious Blood of Christ. To some will be granted the crown of life, in the company of the Blessed Virgin and with the praise of God Himself; upon others will fall eternal disgrace, amid weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Who does not experience a healthy and deep sense of dread when considering this magnificent day?
All must appear before the Judge who comes
26 “And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory…”
The Saints will rejoice and hardened sinners will be filled with terror: such will be the reaction of those living at that time, who will witness the descent of the Son of Man to bring history to an end and to repay each one according to his deeds.
Our Lord will show great power, for He will submit all rational creatures to the decisions of the divine tribunal and to the sentence of eternal mercy or condemnation. And He will do this with such clarity, veracity and discernment that He will manifest in its maximum splendour the adamantine and implacable light of His justice.
27 “…and then He will send out the Angels and gather His elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.”
In commenting on this verse, St. Bede affirms: “Therefore, there will be on that day not one of the elect who remains behind and does not meet the Lord in the air, when He comes to judgement. The reprobate also shall come to judgement, that when it is finished they may be scattered and perish from before the face of God.”2
All of humanity, without exception, will be summoned. The dead will be resurrected and the Saints who have not experienced death will meet Jesus in the sky, as St. Paul magnificently describes: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from Heaven with a cry of command, with the Archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1Thes 4:15-17).
Signs of the times
28 “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. 29 In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that He is near, at the gates.”
Our Lord points out to His disciples the “signs of the times” so that they may be prepared for His glorious return. As Theophylact explains, “It is as if He had said: just as when the fig tree puts forth its leaves, summer follows at once, so also, the calamities of the Antichrist will be followed at once, without an interval, with the coming of Christ, who will be to the just as summer after winter, but to sinners, winter after summer.”3
Accordingly, it will be enough to keep one’s eyes wide open and to observe to what extent the Holy Church of God will be assailed by her enemies, both external and – O, sorrow! – also internal. When the betrayal reaches such proportions that the son of perdition manifests himself and true worship is seriously distorted or even exchanged for execrable idolatry, then the crucial moment will be at hand.
Nevertheless, on the basis of the promises of Our Lady at Fatima, the faithful have confidence in the effective triumph, even before the end of the world, of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, which will be none other than the triumph of the Sacred Heart of Jesus that He Himself prophesied to St. Margaret Mary Alacoque: “Fear not; I will reign, despite my enemies.”4 In those blessed times, the Redemption will bear its best collective fruits of holiness, making earthly life as similar as possible to the heavenly Paradise. Then the supplication from the Our Father will be fulfilled: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”
In this way, conditions will be created so that history, after having known an unprecedented pinnacle of sacrality, purity and faith, will come to its end with the glorious return of Our Lord.
30 “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”
Our Lord’s announcement was fulfilled to the letter, for the fall of Jerusalem took place in the year 70 of the Christian era, before that generation had passed away, and the very ones who had heard the divine prediction would witness its catastrophic fulfilment. The siege and destruction of the Holy City and of the Temple signified the end of a world, the turning over a new page in history, leaving behind the ancient pacts of God with mankind and giving way to the New and Eternal Covenant, sealed with the Blood of the Immaculate Lamb.
Some Fathers of the Church consider that the term “generation” also refers to Christians in general, so that when the Saviour returns, it will be yet during the era of the Gentiles converted to the Faith.
31 “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”
The firmness of Our Lord’s word comforts our hearts. He announced His own Resurrection after His Passion and Death, which was fulfilled in a way that exceeded all expectations. In this vein, the statement made about the Father by the Apostle James in his Epistle can be applied to the Incarnate Word: in Him there are no variations or periods of change (cf. Jas 1:17).
The stability of the Divine Word is of an absolute solidness and, as a result, our faith in the coming of Jesus Christ with glory and power is unshakeable.
The mystery of time
32 “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the Angels in Heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
To know the exact time of future events is not given to ordinary men. Exceptionally, some Saints have accurately prophesied the day of their death, or times of hardship, of cataclysm or of grace. Nevertheless, in His sovereignty, God is careful to keep hidden certain more decisive dates. In this way, the Blessed Trinity fosters the virtue of vigilance, so highly esteemed in the New Testament. To be watchful for the imminent visit of the glorious Jesus awakens zeal and love, while eliminating from our hearts the laxity and pleasure-seeking that are the source of so many vices.
For this reason, and to prevent the disciples from insisting on asking Him the date of the end of the world, Jesus declares that neither the Angels nor the Son know it. However, this affirmation must be understood cum grano salis. Our Lord’s words mean that He, in His human nature, did not know the day and hour; but it would be incorrect to extend this ignorance to the Son as the Word of God, omniscient with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
III – Let Us Lift Up Our Hearts!
The modern world is being dragged into deep and dark despair by the tides of chaos – itself to a large extent organized. Terrified by the prospect of their loss of health and bombarded by the continuous solicitations of technology, people easily become puppets in malicious hands. Thus, wandering aimlessly, many let themselves be guided by dominant opinion. As a result, everyone moves at a frenetic pace, but few know where they are being led.
This situation generates immense inner frustration. On the one hand, attention is held fast by the artificial and seductive brightness of electronic screens; on the other, the new regime of fear foments sentiments of anguish, sadness and even terror. As a result, although it seems paradoxical, death has become futile and meaningless, just as has human existence itself.
To heal hearts wounded by current circumstances, our tender and compassionate Holy Mother Church places at our disposal excellent means, of complete supernatural efficacy. First of all, sound Catholic doctrine, which teaches us the very high vocation of the human being and, in a particular way, of the baptized. To be called to eternal life, in an intimate relationship with God, is something unimaginable!
And the Mystical Bride of Christ has a propitious instrument not only to teach us, but also to allow us savour this luminous doctrine: the Liturgy. As the end of the Liturgical Year approaches, the Liturgy of the Word considers the Gospel passages concerning the end of the world and the return of Our Lord, because to have before one’s eyes the grandeur of the conclusion of history, as well as the dazzling and awesome splendour of Our Lord coming in majesty upon the clouds from Heaven, exorcises the drab and dingy mood that pervades the environment around us. Indeed, in contemplating this sublimity, the faithful discover the beauty of their own vocation, the divine magnificence, and the high goal reserved for each one.
Therefore, let us try to rid our spirit of the malefic miasma which hovers in the polluted air of our sad society, and let us raise our mind and heart to the lofty horizons par excellence. In this way we will recover the courage, the impetus and the determination to seek holiness above all things, and we will fill our lungs with the pure air of hope, which gives us the promise, after the struggles of this life, of reaching the heights of eternal beatitude in the company of the Good Jesus, His Angels and His Saints. ◊
1 ST. BEDE, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea. In Marcum, c.XIII, v.21-27.
2 Idem, ibidem.
3 THEOPHYLACT, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS, op. cit., v.28-31.
4 ST. MARGARET MARY ALACOQUE. Autobiografia. São Paulo: Loyola, 1985, p.69.