By: Fr. James Gross
G. K. Chesterton was a well-respected British author and a convert to the Catholic faith. About 100 years ago, the Times of London newspaper asked Chesterton to write an editorial addressing the question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton simply responded, “I am.”
Most people who knew him and read his writings would have strongly disagreed. But Chesterton took that occasion to argue that the sinful human heart is at the root of all disorder, and not any one philosophy, government, or institution. If we’re not careful, we can launch into an obsession with certain external signs that we think are ushering in the end times, as though the Bible existed only to give a series of predictions. One could fill an entire library with the analyses published on the matter and marketed as “biblical prophecy.” Much of it is fanatical and downright bizarre.
That being said, we shouldn’t diminish the question that Jesus’ disciples pose in today’s Gospel, because it is very logical. They were admiring the Temple, widely considered one of the man-made marvels of the ancient world. Located atop a tall hill in Jerusalem, the temple, with its brilliant white marble and gold ornamentation, was visible for many miles around. The temple was as immense as it was beautiful. It seemed every bit as permanent a structure to the Jews as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome seems to us today. And when someone indicates that one day the temple will be reduced to a smoldering heap of ruins, that declaration simply defies the imagination.
“When will this happen,” they ask the Lord, “and what sign will accompany it?” As often happens, Jesus doesn’t give the answer they expect. “Look for such-and-such to happen. When it does, then brace yourselves.” Rather, the answer Jesus gives has a lot more to do with us. Whom do we love the most: Christ or ourselves? About what will we have greater cause to worry: the condition of the world or the state of our souls?
Notice that most of the things our Lord listed in his answer have ALWAYS been happening on planet Earth: wars, riots, earthquakes, plagues, famines, etc. Who would be so foolish as to claim that one more of any of those will completely tip the balance? The bigger point is that, as long as our faith in God and love for Him are as they should be, the day or the hour doesn’t matter much at all.
“By your perseverance you shall secure your lives.” One sincere moment of grace in one’s life 25 or 50 years ago is not perseverance. Those who face persecution are accused of what they have done here and now, not in some remote place and time. If we labor for Christ day in and day out, it doesn’t matter when the world ends because all is not lost. On the other hand, a life of selfishness and infidelity can only cling to what it knows—a world which eventually will pass away.
St. Paul echoes this theme of being industrious and watchful in the world with today’s second reading. Central to the consciousness of the early Church was the awareness of the “Day of the Lord;” a joyful eagerness for Christ’s Second Coming. However, some of the Thessalonians were taking Paul’s words too literally. They said, “If Jesus is returning any day now, I’ll clear my schedule for him.” So they quit their jobs and spent each day in idleness, which reverted to gossip, mischief, and mooching off others instead of a prayerful vigil.
Paul was a tent maker and canvas repairer by trade, and fell back on those skills everywhere he went. Paul worked within each community he visited in order to earn his keep and at first preached on his own time, until the faithful became numerous enough that he could dedicate himself solely to priestly ministry. He urged his followers to pay heed to his example of not being a burden to anyone. Instead, the key was to be docile to the Holy Spirit, Who would keep one’s house in order.
One other thing that these readings do today is to remind us that martyrdom is closer at hand than we may think. Although it has not come to bloodshed in America, the concept of suffering for our faith in God is not foreign. Jesus speaks of persecution as something that we not only read about in distant lands, but is likely to befall every Christian who opposes the works of the evil one. In every corner of our country, people are being persecuted simply for teaching what the Church teaches. The late Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago, famously predicted, “I will die in my sick bed, my successor will die in prison, and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” It may sound like a fit of hyperbole to many of us, but he said it with the utmost seriousness.
Pressure is being brought to bear especially regarding issues of sexuality, marriage, and the sanctity of life. The well-known cases of wedding caterers, florists, and photographers are only the tip of the iceberg. Churches and pastors will not remain immune from overreach or intrusion on behalf of the State. A robust religious liberty is waning in the face of such threats, and free speech is being manipulated to serve only those in political power. Ironic, isn’t it, that certain groups so fond of libertarian stances (doing what we want with our bodies, our money, etc.) can also demand such oppressive, rigid conformity of others!
The word martyr literally means “witness,” and was used to describe a person giving testimony at a trial. Every one of us will testify to something by our words and actions. If we refuse to testify to our faith in Jesus, it doesn’t mean we are neutral: it only means we are standing firm in something besides God. But if we choose to stand firm in our Christian identity, Jesus Himself will give us a wisdom in speaking that all our adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
G. K. Chesterton refused to blame society’s woes on one government official or cataclysmic event, but instead proposed that each of us seek a lasting remedy for our own ills. If we prove ourselves true, if we continue to feed on the grace of the sacraments, and if we live lives centered around the Lord and His plan for us, we have hope that we shall reign with Him, whenever He comes again.