One of my favorite things to do here at the parish is to hang out on the parking lot for school dismissal. And one of the funniest things to see is when the preschool teachers lead their students out to their parents, almost like the mother ducks leading their baby ducks. The mind of a preschooler must be a very interesting place because everything is distracting. “Oh, looks like I need to tie my shoe! I think I’ll do that right in the middle of the crosswalk!” “Oh wow! What an incredibly shaped stick! I must investigate further!” The preschooler has absolutely no qualms about stopping to do something else half-way to the parking lot, while the teachers are desperately trying to get them to focus on one thing, and one thing only – getting to the safety box so they can go to their parents. I think the new motto for preschool should be “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
Our readings invite us to do something kind of similar today. We’re entering a period in our readings where we’re starting to get to the end of the Church year, and the Church uses the opportunity to teach us to look at the end-times. We’re going to hear a lot of things over the next two weeks about the second coming, the apocalypse, the end of the world, and all that stuff. These kind of readings are what scholars would call “apocalyptic literature” – writings that include visions, warnings, or signs about the end times. Why do we have these kind of readings? Some of these readings like the four horsemen from Revelations are both the most interesting and the most disturbing. But they aren’t meant to scare us, but to help prepare us. They are there to remind us, “Hey, you see all this around you? It’s not going to last forever!” It teaches us that there actually is an end, and we need to be prepared for it.
Oddly enough, these sort of readings are actually there to comfort us. It might seem kind of weird, but if you think about it, all these readings were written as a response to crisis. The Book of Daniel, where our first reading comes from, is from the time of captivity in Babylon. These people are torn away from their homeland and aren’t sure if they’ll ever return again. The famous Book of Revelation was written during some very tough times in the early Church, times of persecution from the Romans and Jewish authorities. The church was energetic, but still very small and very weak. Even some of the apocalyptic words that we hear from Jesus are said for a people under tremendous pressure by the Romans and at the same time, wondering if God was still with them.
Even with strange, and sometimes frightening imagery, these words are meant to bring comfort. They say, “Look, you see the suffering, you see the difficulty? One day, it will end. And not only that, but I will be with you to hold you close.” That’s comforting, and it comes from a God who loves us. Jesus even gives us these words today because he cares about us. He warns us about these signs and visions of the end times because it allows us then to organize our lives – not to get distracted or overwhelmed, but always with our eyes on the prize, and eternal outlook. It’s easy for us to have a purely natural outlook on life. We get wrapped up with our daily to-do list, and we forget about the big picture, about what sort of things to invest our lives in. And so often, we neglect our friendship with Christ, the one thing that will never pass away. In fact, I challenge you to listen closely to the words of our prayers throughout Mass. Probably about 90% of the time, they’re about the things we’re doing here on earth, but always with our eyes on the prize of heaven, with that eternal outlook. In that way, this apocalyptic message isn’t a message of terror, but one of hope.
Just as those words were written or spoken for people in a time of crisis, so they’re written for us too when we go through crises in our lives. For some of us, we look out in the world and feel a bit overwhelmed. Sometimes this happens for me. I look out, and I see a world that is a mess. We’ve got Israel and Palestine, and pretty much the whole Middle East wanting to kill each other. We’ve got people without work everywhere. We’ve got superstorms and earthquakes destroying billions of dollars worth of homes. The moral fiber of our society is troubling. There’s a simple acceptance, and in some cases, and embracing of things intrinsically contrary to our faith like abortion, artificial contraception, and same-sex marriage. There’s compartmentalization of the faith to something like a cultural perk. Mass attendances are dwindling, parishes are shrinking, schools are closing. And all this going on while there are fewer and fewer priests – which on the one hand means excellent job security for me, but on the other means lots more work with less support. It’s overwhelming. It’s scary. It’s discouraging. But these apocalyptic messages remind me that the battle is already won! All these problems, and all this fear won’t matter someday. I can’t give up, I have to keep working hard, but always with my eyes on the prize.
Lots of other people deal with terrible things. They’re lives seem to be a mess. They’re in a rough marriage. They’re having trouble putting the kids through school. They have friends or relatives who are sick, or have their own health issues. They don’t know how to pay for a house because their job situation stinks. And there are infinitely more stories out there, because all of us have different and unique problems and situations. But the words of Jesus are spoken to us to keep our eyes on the prize, to keep that eternal outlook. One day, these problems won’t matter because we’ll have Christ, and all else will pass away.
Now does that mean that we can just leave behind what’s going on around us? No! “No more taxes! The end of the world is coming!” “No more exercise! The end of the world is coming!” “No more laundry! The end of the world is coming!” No, the choices we make today are important, and especially our moral choices, good and bad, continue to have present and eternal consequences. We have to live our lives today as people of tomorrow. We continue to love our families and help the stranger, even going through the really rough times with or for somebody. Not with some kind of misguided solidarity, as if to say, “Well, if I’m going to suffer, it might as well be with you.” Maybe a good way to approach others is with the mindset that I’m going to do what I can for you on earth, so that I can help you get to heaven.
Brothers and sisters, as we gather together today, we’re mindful that all around us will pass away – this church, this parish, and even these sacraments will pass away. But the Lord makes himself present here in the Eucharist to remind us that even when all around us is dust, his love will continue to endure. Let us continue through this celebration to dedicate ourselves to living on this earth with our eyes fixed on the life to come.