It is cold. We are coming to the end of the year. And the Lectionary takes a turn toward the end of the world.
The place it happens most clearly is in the Epistle. The Gospels we read in order (hence “ordinary” time); there we are reaching the end, approaching Jerusalem. The Old Testament reading complements the main theme of the Gospel.
But the Epistles are chosen for the end of the year. In Year B it’s the end of Hebrews, which looks toward the saints in heaven. But in Years A and C it’s First and Second Thessalonians, which may be some of the earliest writings in the New Testament, and speak particularly of persecution, which they read in light of the final coming of Jesus.
The Lectionary is gentle with us, giving a taste of the End for those who read no further, and much deeper references toward the End for those of us who open our Bibles.
Thus our reading this Sunday, from the end of the first chapter of Second Thessalonians, begins, “We always pray for you” – but if you open your Bible, you’ll see that the sentence (and the verse) begins “Therefore.” Wherefore?
Paul has been commending “your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations which you endure.” He looks forward to “when He shall come to be glorified in His saints and to be admired in all those who believe . . . in that Day.” And he warns of “flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God and who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“Therefore, we always pray for you,” as our reading says – that God may make us worthy to stand when Jesus comes.
The second paragraph of our reading says “not to be shaken” by any false claims “to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand.” If you keep reading, St. Paul warns of the coming of “the lawless one,” the rebellion that comes before the End. Don’t believe it’s already happened – look forward to his coming.
At the end of the year we face the end of time, and we pray for the grace to stand before the face of Jesus.
In that light, we have the reading from Wisdom, which helps us to focus on God’s mercy.
Wisdom is a philosophical book. The argument this week is in three straightforward steps:
God can. The universe is itty-bitty to him. We are weak but he is strong.
God wants to. All things exist because he made them. “And how could a thing remain, unless you willed it?” And he is especially, such beautiful words, “lover of souls.” Among all created realities, nothing is so beautiful to him as our souls – in the words of Gaudium et Spes, “man is the only creature on earth [alongside the angels] which God created for its own sake,” to live forever with him.
And so – God rebukes us. His mercy doesn’t leave us wallowing in our sin. His mercy “rebukes offenders little by little,” gently leading us out of the coming darkness and into his own glorious light, “that they may abandon their wickedness and believe in you, O Lord!”
Jesus saves sinners. Come, Lord Jesus! Thy kingdom come!
As always, the Gospel makes it all incarnate.
Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, coming near to his cross. In today’s reading, he gets to Jericho, the next big town over, to the northeast. The end is near.
And we see a scene of mercy. Zacchaeus is one of the most loveable figures in the Gospel: a tax collector, therefore a bad guy, but so short, and so shaken by the Holy Spirit moving him within, that he climbs a tree to see Jesus. When Jesus comes to his house – “He has gone to stay at the house of a sinner” – Zacchaeus repents: “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” Which is a lot.
But the punchline comes at the end: “Today salvation has come to this house . . . . For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
The liturgical year has us facing the end. But as we face the end, we come to a greater encounter with the mercy of Jesus, who calls us out of this present darkness and into his glorious light.
What does “Come Lord Jesus” mean to you?