Sunday, November 18, 2012

For the Future

Pulling into the parking lot for 10:30am Mass today, I heard a radio interview with Willie Nelson during which they played a bit of his song, "Come on Back Jesus," which says: "Come on back Jesus / and pick up John Wayne on the way."  

It seemed at least half appropriate this Sunday.

   Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A pair of books came out back in 1989 and 1991
(which is practically prehistoric 
to whippersnappers like Fr. Tom):
the first was Future Stuff,
and then came its creatively titled sequel, 
More Future Stuff.
In both, the authors made predictions
about all kinds of gismos and gadgets
that people would enjoy in the future—
the “future” being the early 2000’s. 
They foresaw things like computers 
that would be voice activated,
or that could help you find your way 
driving on unfamiliar roads,
and even cars that would park themselves—
all things we actually do have today.
(Of course, they also predicted 
we’d now have bathing suits
which would change colors with our mood. 
I’m kind of glad they were wrong about that one!)

How is it that people are able to make
such fairly accurate forecasts of the future?
It’s not, of course, by magic,
not by looking into some crystal ball.
It actually involves only two simple steps:
first, taking careful note of what we human beings are capable of,
and then taking careful note of what we human beings desire most.
It’s one thing to recognize what’s humanly possible,
yet another to make out what we actually
have the motivation to accomplish.

In the gospel this Sunday,
we find Jesus making predictions, too—
not about the marvelous technology of tomorrow,
but about the end of time.
And I think it’s relatively safe to say
Jesus uses much the same technique to reach his conclusions:
predictions based on both what we human beings are capable of,
and—in a significant twist—on what God desires most.

Now—at first glance, anyway—Jesus’ peek into the future
isn’t quite so optimistic as those books.
In fact, it sounds pretty grim:
full of distress and tribulation and deep, deep darkness.
What gives?
Are things really that hopeless?
Isn’t there at least some chance for an eternally happy ending?

Let’s scratch beneath the surface of these predictions.

First, there will be the tribulations.
In other places, Jesus speaks of these
as being like the pangs of birth (Mt 24:8).
(And from what I hear,
such things are more than minor “pangs”!)
Like the painful labor that accompanies the delivery of a child,
so most of us—unless we’re perfect saints
or unless we’re sinners who’ve put ourselves
beyond the reach of God’s mercy—
can anticipate at least some distress
in passing from this world to the next.
It’s not about punishment, per se;
it’s a matter of God’s desires and our desires
needing to be better lined up…
…and just guess whose are going to have to be adjusted a bit.
(For the individual soul,
this experience is what we call purgatory.)
God knows well what we’re capable of—for good or ill—
because he’s the one who made us.
And God made us with a distinct goal in mind:
that we would know the fullness of joy in his presence forever.
That’s God’s desire! 
That’s meant to be our inheritance!

And then there will be darkness.
Jesus speaks of losing the sun and the moon and the stars
in an era when you couldn’t just flip a switch
and turn the lights on at will.
His first hearers would have quickly recognized
that darkness and light are part of a natural rhythm.  (cf. J. Lienhard)
And as the old saying goes:
“The night is always darkest before the dawn.”
Jesus, then, is not predicting a darkness of endless doom,
but one of expectation—of hope-filled longing—
as we await the return of him who is Light from Light.

We would do well—each one of us—
to attempt to make some predictions about the future:
not about possible hi-tech advances;
not even about our own probable accomplishments.
We need to look toward the end:
the end of time, the end of our lives.
And we need to seriously consider our prospects for eternity.
That is THE question, isn’t it?
It’s the only question that ultimately matters—
the one that’s not going away
no matter how we try to avoid it.

This Year of Faith is a perfect time for each of us
to take a good hard look at our own potential.
It should be like seeing
the first tender leaves sprout in the spring:
a hint of what can, what will be.
Despite our limitations, despite our hesitations,
we are all capable of pretty amazing things.
And then we need to take a good hard look at our motivations.
Where is my heart leading me?
What direction is my life taking?  What path am I on?
And if we realize we’re off track—whether by a little or a lot—
now is the time to find our way back:
to make sure that what God most desires
is what we desire, too.

Outside of Lowville, 
where I was once assigned,
some folks had 
a large, hand-painted sign
next to the road which read, 
“Christ is coming.  Are you ready?”
It was a good, clear reminder 
whenever I drove by.

Likewise, in the fall of every year
the Church invites her children 
to reflect on the “last things”—
on death and all that comes after.
And in a few moments, 
as we do every Sunday,
we will again confess our faith
that Christ “will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead.”
Let us look to this future not with fear,
but with readiness and hope.
We know not the day nor the hour,
but we know what God is capable of.

And so we dare to pray:
Come, Lord Jesus!
Come in great power, accompanied by your angels!
Come to gather your scattered people!
Through tribulation and darkness,
come and lead us into joy and light!

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