Monday, November 27, 2017

“Heaven and Earth Shall Pass Away…”: In My Beginning Is My End

Hans Memling, Last Judgment, 1467-1471
In the usus antiquior, the Mass for the last Sunday after Pentecost and the Mass for the first Sunday of Advent feature parallel Gospel pericopes about the end of the world. These Gospels contain a number of striking verses that seem more relevant than ever — an abomination of desolation in the holy place, the warning against false Christs and false prophets so persuasive or powerful that they will tempt even the elect to go astray; the mention of Christ’s coming from the east, frequently mentioned by the Church fathers as one of the reasons why we worship facing eastwards, “awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13); but above all, in their concluding statements, which match exactly.

The traditional Gospel for the last Sunday after Pentecost is taken from Saint Matthew, chapter 24, verses 13–25:
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: When you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place (he that readeth, let him understand), then they that are in Judea, let them flee to the mountains; and he that is on the housetop, let him not come down to take anything out of his house; and he that is in the field, let him not go back to take his coat. And woe to them that are with child, and that give suck, in those days. But pray that your flight be not in the winter, or on the sabbath: for there shall be then great tribulation, such as hath not been found from the beginning of the world until now neither shall be: and unless those days had been shortened, no flesh should be saved; but for the sake of the elect, those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say to you: Lo, here is Christ, or there; do not believe him; for there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch as to deceive (if possible) even the elect. Behold I have told it to you beforehand: if therefore they shall say to you: Behold He is in the desert, go ye not out; behold He is in the closets, believe it not. For as lightning cometh out of the east, and appeareth even into the west, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. Wheresoever the body shall be, there shall the eagles also be gathered together. And immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved; and then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn; and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with much power and majesty; and He shall send His angels with a trumpet and a great voice, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest parts of the heavens to the utmost bounds of them. And from the fig tree learn a parable: when the branch thereof is now tender, and the leaves come forth, you know that summer is nigh. So you also, when you shall see all these things, know ye that it is nigh even at the doors. Amen I say to you that this generation shall not pass till all these things be done. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.
The traditional Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent one week later is taken from Saint Luke, chapter 21, verses 25–33:
At that time Jesus said to His disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves: men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world. For the powers of heaven shall be moved. And then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand. And He spoke to them a similitude: See the fig tree and all the trees: when they now shoot forth their fruit, you know that summer is nigh. So you also, when you shall see these things come to pass, know that the kingdom of God is at hand. Amen, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but My words shall not pass away.
With these final statements of Matthew and Luke — Cælum et terra transíbunt, verba autem mea non præteríbunt — Holy Mother Church sets a challenge, as it were, to the entire created order, throwing down the gauntlet to everyone and everything that would attempt to efface or corrupt the words of the Lord, the corrosive effects of long stretches of time, the explosive effects of cultural revolutions, the pervasive effects of original and actual sin. None of it, nothing, will cause the words of the Lord to pass away. Sooner will heaven and earth, the sun, moon, and stars, the land and the sea, and all creatures, pass away into the new heavens and the new earth. This is the solemn, apocalyptic, triumphant message with which the Church closes each liturgical year and immediately starts it again. It is as if the Church desires above all that we hear, and know, and impress forever on our souls, that Christ God is the one and only Teacher and Master (cf. Mt 23:10), that He alone has the words of eternal life (cf. Jn 6:68), that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).[1]

We see a confirmation that this is, indeed, the mind of the Church when we turn to the traditional Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons for the Last Sunday after Pentecost. These antiphons, always derived from the day’s Gospel, provide an interpretive key to the Gospel in its entirety. They give us an authoritative angle from which to approach it, a truth we are especially urged to ponder, as we move from Lauds in the early morning to Vespers in the evening. The Benedictus antiphon is stark:
When you see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place: let him who reads understand.
This antiphon brings before our eyes the frightening prospect of a massive desecration or desacralization, an emptying or evacuation of the temple, a violation of the innermost precincts of holiness comparable to the violent crime of rape. The abomination in question, whatever it is, is said to stand, as if firmly established, taking possession of the place, imparting to it its own qualities. So horrible is the prospect that the antiphon is not even a grammatically complete sentence: it trails off: When you see this… let the reader understand. What are we supposed to understand? There are almost as many opinions as there are commentators, but this much we can say: we are dealing here with an attack on the most sacred thing, an attack on the temple and what ought to be present in it. (It is curious, is it not, that Pope Paul VI stated in his November 1969 General Audience, right before the introduction of the Novus Ordo: "We are becoming like profane intruders in the literary preserve of sacred utterance.")

Then, almost as if to give us comfort and strength in the midst of this dire prophecy, the Magnificat antiphon tells us:
Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have been accomplished. Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away, says the Lord.
There it is again: that ponderous and decisive verse, the simultaneously visible and invisible boundary that no heretic, no schismatic, no apostate, no infidel, may ever cross. Thus, for example, should anyone arise who dares to question or in any way weaken the indissolubility of marriage, he is met with the resounding voice of the Lord in Matthew 19: “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder. … I say to you, that whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that shall marry her that is put away, committeth adultery.” Should anyone dare to set aside or relax the superior discipline of celibacy, he is met with “the voice of the Lord upon the waters” (cf. Ps 28:3) — the “many waters” of a millennium and a half of Catholic teaching clearly defending and confirming this discipline as an intimate counterpart to the calling to the clerical state, in which a cleric is made the husband of one wife, the Church.[2] As Challoner sums it up in his heading for Matthew 19: “Christ declares matrimony to be indissoluble: he recommends the making one’s self an eunuch for the kingdom of heaven; and parting with all things for Him. He shews the danger of riches, and the reward of leaving all to follow Him.”

Against the backdrop of our times, the Benedictus antiphon puts us in mind of our liturgical crisis, while the Magnificat antiphon points to our moral and dogmatic crisis. This pair of antiphons reminds us anew of the indissoluble marriage between the lex orandi and the lex credendi.

The usus antiquior Gospels end and begin each liturgical year in a seamless overlap that illustrates and evokes the continuity between time rushing to its end and the now of eternity. The stability of this pair’s recurrence allows us to sense how the words of the Church at prayer and the eternal Word of God in glory are profoundly united — a mystery well expressed in Eliot’s Four Quartets:
…the end precedes the beginning,
And the end and the beginning were always there
Before the beginning and after the end.
In my beginning is my end.
A final observation: it is not only the Gospels that seamlessly overlap, but the Collects of the Masses as well. The Collect of the Last Sunday after Pentecost begins with the audacious imperative that will characterize several of the Collects of Advent: "Excita, quaesumus, Domine..."
Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful: that more earnestly seeking this fruit of the divine work, they may receive more abundantly the remedies of Thy loving kindness. Through our Lord...
One week later, in the newly begun penitential season of Advent, Holy Mother Church cries out in the same manner:
Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy power, and come: that from the threatening dangers of our sins we may deserve to be rescued by Thy protection, and to be saved by Thy deliverance: Who livest and reignest with God the Father…
We see here the lex orandi reminding us that without God's grace powerfully at work in our wills, we can do nothing pleasing to Him or salvific of our souls; that the fruit we must seek is precisely the Holy One of Israel, the fruit of the opus Dei of the Mass; and that in so seeking, we shall find healing, protection, deliverance. This is a message of and for the end times in which we are always living, and the end we are progressively nearing with the passing of each liturgical year. Excita, Domine: stir up our languid and passive wills, make us actively hunger and thirst for Thy righteousness, now and forever. Amen.


[1] Apart from a general eschatological atmosphere, the reformed calendar with its “Ordinary Time” and the lectionary with its three Sunday cycles makes no such specific connection between the end of the Temporal cycle and its beginning, nor, as I shall show later this week, between the end of the Sanctoral cycle and its beginning.

[2] See Ignace de la Potterie, S.J., “The Biblical Foundation of Priestly Celibacy.”


In meditating further on this Gospel at Mass on Monday (a feria), it occurred to me that this particular verse captures well the postconciliar crisis in Catholic worship: "The sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved." The sun of our life is the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, whose luminosity was darkened by the liturgical reform. The moon is the Divine Office, which no longer gives its gentle light in the chanted weekly psalter. The stars are the host of devotions, blessings, and sacramentals that fell from the firmament of Catholic life, leaving it bleak and cold. The powers of heaven are the other sacramental rites, which were moved from their doctrinal splendor.

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