33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – The End of the World

SCRIPTURES & ART: ‘All that you see here,’ says the Lord, ‘the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.’

James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Prophecy of the Destruction of the Temple”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “The Prophecy of the Destruction of the Temple” (photo: Public Domain)

The liturgical year is running toward its end. Advent starts in two weeks. 

In these last weeks of Ordinary Time, the Church’s readings turn toward the Last Things, including the Last Judgment and the Last Day. Traditionally, that is the subject of the last Sunday in Ordinary Time and the First Sunday of Advent, two Sundays that followed each other until the 1969 Roman Calendar reform interpolated the Solemnity of Christ the King between them. That makes sense: creation began in the Son of God, and that is where it will end. The universe ends not so much in a what (the Last Day) as a who (Jesus Christ).

In today’s Gospel, the Apostles are admiring the Temple of Jerusalem. It was something to admire. It had been lavishly reconstructed by Herod the Great in an effort to get the Jews to love him, something that would never happen. Like most of his infrastructure projects, sacred and secular, Herod built on a grand scale and, since this was the center of Jewish life and identity, the Jewish people spared no expense to ensure it was appointed with only the best.

Jesus prophesies its destruction. It would be in AD 70, by the Romans, after an unsuccessful Jewish uprising that resulted in laying siege to the Holy City.

Jesus also identifies signs of the end times. He warns against too facile an interpretation of those signs, a temptation that has afflicted every generation of Christians. The signs, however, are clear: wars, uprisings, plagues, famines, earthquakes and “awesome signs” in the heavens. Those times will also be accompanied by false prophets claiming to speak in Christ’s name (“’I am he.’”) and by a persecution of the Church and the faithful.

Jesus’ advice is to stay calm and to rely on him. “I will give you a wisdom in speaking.” At the same time, he does not camouflage the reality of persecution: “You will even be handed over by parents, brothers, relatives and friends and they will put some of you to death.” The Christian cannot expect a smoother road than Christ’s.

Today’s Gospel is illustrated by French artist James Tissot. “La predication de la ruine du Temple” (The Prophecy of the Destruction of the Temple) is another gouache (opaque watercolor) dating from the period 1886-94, part of his “Life of Christ” and about the time he was traveling in the Near East. The painting, like most of Tissot’s works, is in the Brooklyn Museum. 

Jesus sits opposite Jerusalem, its massive walls and structures facing him, the terraces outside those walls visible. His head is bowed, almost in regret, at what is coming. Four disciples face him, listening attentively, equally struck by his words.

Do I believe that this world will end, that its history and my life will be summarized into an eternity of beatitude or damnation? We may not know how it will end, but that it will is part of our faith — just as the question of creation is faith in that God made us, not how he did it. As Christians, we are baptized into Christ’s death in the hope of resurrection. Our very vocation as Christians is to lead us to and through that definitive page of human history. Do I consider that’s where my life is headed? And what am I doing about it?