Sunday, November 17, 2013
Virtue Arms Us to Endure (33.C)
Be honest—it was probably this time last year. The only reason I can answer “yesterday” is that I had to write this homily!
And yet Jesus makes it easy for us to think about the end of the world. He lists the signs that the end is coming: wars, revolutions, earthquakes, famines, plagues, and the persecution of Christians.
When was the last time you thought about those things? Unless you spent the week in the woods, you’ve thought about them non-stop. The calamity in the Philippines is the most recent example, but we have plenty of others.
I had trouble with today’s Gospel when I was younger. Since all the signs seem present in our world all the time, how come the Lord has not returned to judge the living and the dead? But the more I studied the more I understood that people have been asking that question since the time of Jesus: after all, he predicts the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem, which took place less than forty years after his death.
And Jesus seems to caution us against using these signs and portents to create a timetable for the end of the world. Notice what he says: “these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.”
So what is Jesus telling us with these dire predictions—and what do they have to do with the Second Coming, which he describes in the verses that follow those we read this morning?
Scripture experts say that “a positive message runs through what our Lord is saying."
First, Jesus promises God’s help: Although we must endure terrible things before his coming in glory, “divine providence takes into account all these difficulties, severe though they may be.” God permits them, since in his power he can use them for our good.” [The Navarre Bible: New Testament, 336.]
Second, Our Lord also promises special graces to those who suffer. Those under attack will be given the words and wisdom to defend themselves. We do not need to rely on our own resources in facing the challenges of Christian life in a hostile world. Whether we’re talking about martyrs standing before emperors, or pro-life advocates standing before judges, or average Catholics being challenged in the lunchroom at work, the Holy Spirit provides the words we can use to witness to our faith.
Third, and most important, is the promise of victory. Jesus says “not a hair of your head will perish” and “you will gain your souls.”
The path to victory is the path of virtue. Virtues are good habits that dispose us to perform good actions. We speak of faith, hope and charity as theological or supernatural virtues, part of the Christian life of grace after Baptism. But there are also natural or human virtues “which every good person needs.” [Evangelium: Participant’s Book, 37.] Chief among these are prudence, fortitude, temperance and justice.
Today, Jesus speaks of endurance, which is closely connected to the virtue of fortitude, which strengthens us to do the right thing even when it is difficult. And fortitude requires patience. Both St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas say that patience allows us to withstand suffering without loss of heart—that is, without sinking into sorrow.
St. Thomas explains very well why Jesus says that endurance will allow us to gain our souls—because it is through patience that we remain the master of our souls. It is through patient endurance that we are able to root out the worry and alarm that would deprive our souls of peace. (Summa, 2-2, 136, 2 ad 2, quoted in Navarre Bible, 337.]
The end is coming, that’s for certain. But Jesus wants us to live in the present moment with exactly the same confidence and courage that the Last Days will require. St. Augustine says “Let us not resist his first coming, so that we may not dread the second.” In plainer language, the lay evangelist Ralph Martin says “Remember the reward for perseverance is heaven!”
Since perseverance is really another name for endurance, I’d like to end with a prayer from Ralph Martin’s booklet “Don’t Give Up,” which we handed out to the parish a few years back.
Lord, thank you for teaching us about the importance of perseverance. Help us to break with sin and keep our eyes on the joy of heaven. Help us to keep on believing, keep on hoping, and keep on loving, no matter how difficult the circumstances become. We know you’ll never allow us to be tempted or tested beyond our strength. Help us to keep our eyes on you, to draw on your strength and your power and your constancy, so that we might, by your grace, by the power of your blood and mercy, persevere until the very end. Amen.