Weekly General Audience November 12, 2008
During his general audience on Nov. 12, Pope Benedict XVI discussed St. Paul’s teaching on the second coming of Christ. In St. Paul’s eyes, the Holy Father pointed out, Christ’s victorious reign has in fact already begun. Yet we, who have received the Holy Spirit as the first fruits of our redemption, patiently await the fulfillment of that plan in our lives. Our life in this world, with its trials and sufferings, must find inspiration in the hope of heaven and the expectation of our resurrection to glory. This is reflected in the ancient Christian prayer with which St. Paul concludes his First Letter to the Corinthians: “Come, Lord Jesus!”
Dear brothers and sisters,
The theme of the Resurrection, on which we reflected last week, opens up a whole new perspective — one in which we await the Lord’s return.
This affords us the opportunity to reflect on the relationship between this present time — the time of the Church and the Kingdom of Christ — and the éschaton (future) that awaits us when Christ will hand over the Kingdom to the Father (see 1 Corinthians 15:24).
Every discussion in Christianity on the end times, known as eschatology, is always based on the Resurrection event. In the Resurrection, the end times have already begun, and in a certain sense, are already present.
The Second Coming
It was probably in the year 52 when Paul wrote the first of his letters, the First Letter to the Thessalonians, where he speaks about Jesus’ return, known as parousia — a coming, a new, definitive and manifest presence (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15).
“For if we believe that Jesus died and rose,” Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, who had their doubts and their problems, “so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:14). He goes on to say: “... the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17).
Paul describes Christ’s parousia in very vivid tones and with symbolic imagery that convey a simple and profound message: In the end, we shall always be with the Lord. Here, beyond all the imagery, is the essential message: Our future is to “be with the Lord.” As believers, we are already with the Lord in this life; our future, which is eternal life, has already begun.
In the second Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul modifies this perspective. He speaks about some negative events that have to precede the final and conclusive event.
We should not let ourselves be deceived, he says, as though the day of the Lord were truly imminent according to some calculation of time: “We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him, not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a ‘spirit’ or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way” (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3).
He goes on to say that, before the Lord comes, there will be the apostasy, in which a “lawless one” and “the one doomed to perdition” will be revealed, without giving any further identification (2 Thessalonians 2:3), but which tradition has come to call the Antichrist.
However, St. Paul’s intention in this letter was, first and foremost, a practical one. He writes: “In fact, when we were with you, we instructed you that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat. We hear that some are conducting themselves among you in a disorderly way, by not keeping busy but minding the business of others. Such people we instruct and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to work quietly and to eat their own food” (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12).
In other words, waiting for Jesus’ second coming does not excuse us from our commitments in this world. On the contrary, it creates a situation in which we are responsible to the Divine Judge for our conduct in this world.
That is why we have a growing responsibility to work within and for this world. We will see this next Sunday in the Gospel reading about the “talents,” where the Lord tells us that he has entrusted talents to everyone and the Judge will ask us for an accounting: Have you borne fruit? Thus, awaiting the Lord’s return implies taking responsibility for this world.
Judge and Savior
This connection between parousia — the return of our Judge and Savior — and our commitments in this life appears in another context and with some new features in the Letter to the Philippians.
Paul is in prison and is awaiting his sentence — a sentence that could condemn him to death. There, he thinks about being with the Lord in the future, but he also thinks about the community in Philippi, which has need of him, their father, and he writes the following: “For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. And I do not know which I shall choose. I am caught between the two. I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit. And this I know with confidence, that I shall remain and continue in the service of all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that your boasting in Christ Jesus may abound on account of me when I come to you again” (Philippians 1:21-26).
Paul does not fear death. On the contrary, it means to be completely with Christ.
But Paul also shares the feelings of Christ, who did not live for himself but for us. To live for others becomes his plan of action in life.
Therefore, he indicates that he is completely available to do God’s will — to do what God decides. Above all, he is willing — even in the future — to spend his life on this earth for the sake of others, to live for Christ and to live for his living presence and therefore for the renewal of this world.
We see that this being with Christ creates a great inner freedom — freedom in the face of the threat of death — but freedom, too, in the face of all the commitments and sufferings of this life. He is simply available to God. For this reason, he is truly free.
Freedom and Joy
Having considered the various aspects of waiting for Christ’s parousia, let us now ask ourselves: What are the basic attitudes of a Christian vis-à-vis the end times — death and the end of the world?
The first is the certainty that Jesus has risen, that he is with the Father, and so he is with us always. No one is more powerful than Christ, because he is with the Father and he is with us. Therefore, we are safe and delivered from fear.
This was an essential effect of the Christian message. Fear of spirits and of gods was widespread throughout the ancient world. Even today, missionaries find — along with the many good elements of natural religions — a fear of spirits and of evil forces that are a threat to people.
Christ lives: He conquered death, and he conquered all these forces. We live in this certainty, in this freedom and in this joy. This is the first aspect of our living with respect to the future.
Christ Is With Us
Secondly, there is the certainty that Christ is with me. In a certain sense, the future world has already begun in Christ, and this gives us the certainty of hope. The future is not some darkness in which no one is able to find his way. This is not the case.
Even today, without Christ, the future is dark for the world, and there is so much fear of the future. Christians know that the light of Christ is more powerful, and they live, therefore, in a hope that is not vague but rather with a hope that gives sureness and courage to face the future.
Finally, there is a third attitude. The Judge who will return — who is both judge and savior at the same time — has entrusted us with the task of living in this world by following the example of how he lived.
He has given us his talents. Therefore, our third attitude is one of responsibility for the world and for our brothers and sisters in Christ, along with the certainty of his mercy.
Both things are important. We do not live as though good and evil were equal because God can only be merciful. Otherwise, we would be deceiving ourselves. In fact, we live with a great responsibility. We have the talents, and we are given the task of seeing that the world opens itself up to Christ and is renewed.
But even as we work and know amid this responsibility that God is truly the judge, we have the certainty that the judge is good. We know his face — the face of the resurrected Christ, of the Christ who was crucified for us.
Thus, we can be sure of his goodness and move forward with great courage.
Hope in a Future Reality
One other aspect of Paul’s teaching on eschatology is the universality of the call to faith. It united both Jews and Gentiles — that is, pagans — as the sign and the anticipation of a future reality, thanks to which we can say that we already have a place in heaven with Jesus Christ, so that in the ages to come he might show the riches of his grace (see Ephesians 2:6 ff).
The “after” becomes a “before” in order to make the early stages of the realization in which we live more evident. This makes the sufferings of the present moment tolerable, even though they are not comparable to the future glory (see Romans 8:18).
We walk by faith, not by sight, and even though it would be preferable to leave behind our body in order to dwell with the Lord, what ultimately counts — whether we still dwell in our bodies or have left them behind — is that we please him (see 2 Corinthians 5:7-9).
There is one final point that, perhaps, may be a little difficult for us. St. Paul, at the end of his First Letter to the Corinthians, repeats a prayer that originated in the very first Christian communities of Palestine, which he has the Corinthians say: “Maranà, thà!” which literally means “Come, Lord!” (see 1 Corinthians 16:22).
It was the prayer of early Christianity, and even the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, closes with this prayer: “Come, Lord!”
Can we, too, pray this prayer? It may seem difficult for us today — in our life and in our world — to sincerely pray that this world would end, that the new Jerusalem would come, and that the Last Judgment would come along with its judge, who is Christ.
If we sincerely dare not to pray this prayer for various reasons, I feel we can still say with the early Christians, in a way that is fitting and proper, “Come, Lord Jesus!”
We certainly do not want the end of the world to come right now. On the other hand, though, we want an end to this unjust world.
We want a fundamental change in the world so that a civilization of love may begin and that the world may become a world of justice and peace, without violence and without hunger.
We want all this. But how can it happen without the presence of Christ?
Without the presence of Christ, a world that is truly just and renewed will never come.
Though it may be in another way, we, too, can say and should say, totally and deeply, with great urgency and amid the circumstances of our time: Come, Lord! Come in your way, in the ways you know. Come where there is injustice and violence. Come to the refugee camps in Darfur, in North Kivu, and in so many parts of the world. Come where drugs dominate. Come to those rich who have forgotten you and who live only for themselves. Come where you are not known. Come in your own way and renew the world today. Come, too, into our hearts. Come and renew our lives. Come into our hearts so that we, too, may become God’s light, your presence.
In this sense, we pray with St. Paul, “Maranà thà! Come, Lord Jesus!” We pray that Christ will be truly present today in our world and renew it.