Life is a Path
The passage we have just heard is part of a long conversation between Jesus and His disciples. It occurs just days prior to His being arrested in the Garden of Olives and brought to trial. As Jesus was leaving the Temple area, His disciples pointed out the magnificence of the temple buildings. Jesus said to them, “You see all these things, do you not? Amen, I say to you, there will not be left here a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”1
Jesus tells them what the age of the Church, the period of history between His resurrection and His Second Coming will be like. He tells His Apostles that the age of the Church will be marked by both wonderful growth and painful persecution, by those who worship God and those who worship themselves.
Jerusalem will be destroyed. False prophets will claim to be gods. There will be earthquakes, famine, persecution, endless wars, and unprecedented abominations. They will be betrayed, hated, imprisoned, and put to death. Evil will seem to reign. And, eventually the earth itself will be destroyed to make way for the new heavens and the new earth.
Jesus spoke about what He knew - His words were not mere speculations or theories. The Apostles recognized the authenticy and truth in His voice. So, why is Jesus telling them these things? And, why does the Church remind us about them every year as Advent begins?
Jesus, and the Church, wants us to know that the time of His coming is near, that our lives and history itself will come to an end. The memory of all those who rose to fame and status will be forgotten - wiped away - no more than a breath. No one will know, or care, how powerful we were or how many contests we won. Jesus warns us that all the investments we have in the things of the earth will come to naught. The only ones that will last are our spiritual investments: our love of God; and the love and mercy we have shown to our neighbor. We will all stand before the Lord and be judged, not on our worldly success, not on our personal accomplishments, but on the purity of our hearts. Only those who are consumed by Christ's love, only those who persevere to the end, will be saved.
Jesus wants us to know that our time is limited, and that we need to use it wisely. The end will come suddenly and rapidly, at an unexpected hour – so rapidly that a person in the field will not have time to get his cloak. “There will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until now, nor ever will be.2
Jesus tells us that “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather”3 , suggesting that those who are spiritually dead will be destroyed. Perhaps also, Jesus is forecasting the death of the 1.2 million Jews which occurred when the Temple was destroyed, or perhaps He is symbolically forecasting the multitudes at the end of the age who will not attain eternal life.
Continuing Jesus says, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days, the sun will be darkened, the moon will not give its light, the stars will fall from the sky, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.4 “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, and one will be left. Therefore, stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come.5 Only the pure of heart will survive.
Jesus tells us, “the love of many will grow cold.”6 He knew how easily even the most faithful disciple can be seduced by sin and fall from grace. He knew how easily we fall into the trap of thinking that this earthly life is the goal, and not merely the path. It has been said that human life is a journey, but what is our destination? How do we preserve our spiritual life? How do we travel on the narrow path? It has been said that life is a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we navigate by the stars. The true stars of our lives are the saints, the people who have lived good lives, those who have loved us, and have kept the faith. They are the lights of hope that walk in the Light of Christ. And Christ, the true light, is the Son who has risen above death and all the shadows of history.
Several years ago, the letters of Saint Teresa of Calcutta were published. Her letters showed that she spent most of her adult life suffering a terrible sense of darkness and loneliness in her heart.
The secular news media gave these letter a lot of publicity. They seemed to rejoice in them, as if Saint Teresa's experience somehow proved that God did not exist, that having faith in God is only the hope of fools, and that Saint Teresa was a hypocrite for staying faithful to a God who allowed her to suffer so much.
But, little to anyone's surprise, the media completely missed the point. The truth is that Saint Teresa thoroughly understood the meaning of this life, and that's what gave her the strength to persevere through her trials and to carry her cross so well.
Hopefully, all our lives are an Advent Season. Advent reminds us that there are two roads. Either we journey toward Christ or we journey toward destruction. The road to desolation is wide and easy and is traveled by many. But, the path of true discipleship, the road to eternal life, is hard and difficult. It requires discipline and self sacrifice. It requires us to bear our crosses and to carry the crosses of our neighbor.
Jesus tells us that love of God and love of our neighbor are the two greatest commandments. The path to Christ requires abandoning ourselves, and being consumed by the Fire of His love. For the path of our salvation is not found in acquisitions, but in giving. It is not found in self-indulgence, but in the generous love of our neighbor. It is not found in self-centeredness, but in charity and humility, It is not found in earthly pursuits, but in eternal treasures.
The secular news media refused to see how much good Saint Teresa achieved through her suffering; how much light and hope she brought to the world, simply because she had learned this lesson so well: that our life on earth is a path, and not the goal, and not the destination.
But it's not enough to know that this life is a path; we also must travel that path. That involves a constant effort to be true to our Christian identity, to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ".7 And, as St Paul tells us, to "throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."8 The works of darkness are many – cunning, deceptive, self-serving and indulgent. They take control and destroy our spiritual lives. They enslave us, cause us turned in on ourselves, and destroy the goodness of our souls.
Saint Paul tells us to put on the armor of light, to be like bright stars, like suns, burning with love for God and neighbor, bringing light to everyone around us by seeking what is truly good for them, just as Christ sought only what was good for us.
But, all this is not to say that seeking our salvation is dismal. Certainly not! There is no joy like that found in Christ. And in the latter weeks of Advent, after confessing our sins, and offering penance, we will celebrate Christ's Love, Forgiveness, and Mercy. And, we can celebrate with pure hearts, and pure motives, in perfect love.
Saint Francis of Assisi, having experienced the Love of God, gave up all his possessions, and sought to live as Christ lived. He traveled on foot in heat, rain, ice and snow to preach the Word of God. He had only a tunic: no lodging, no food, no money, no pension, no insurance, no retirement, no medical care, no food stamps, and no 401K. He just wanted to live as the poor beggar that he was, atoning for his sins, seeking his salvation, and preaching the Love of God, Over the years the authenticity of his life brought millions to know Our Lord Jesus Christ and to share His Love.
Yet, in all his hardships, Saint Francis said, “I have found perfect joy”. And like Saint Francis, I'm sure that in all her trials, Saint Theresa also found perfect joy: the perfect joy of being completely consumed in Our Savior's Love.
It's a joy incomprehensible to the secular media, and the everyday world. It's a joy that few of us can even image. So, as we begin this Advent Season, let's contemplate how we can put on the Armor of Christ, how we can reinforce our spiritual lives, how we can dispel the works of darkness, and how we can find perfect joy.
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