As we come to the end of the liturgical year, the Church focuses our attention on the last things. The readings are more ominous with more apocalyptic language. They give us a warning of events that are yet to come.
The Gospel of Luke speaks to us of the Second Temple which was built in 515 BC. This Temple was a magnificent architectural achievement. The Jews were in awe of it. For them, it seemed to represent the enduring nature of the world. They could hardly believe such a place could ever be destroyed.
Jesus used the opportunity of preaching in the Temple to speak about the end of time. Jesus predicts “As for these things which you see, the days will come when there shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down." (Luke 21, 6)
Christ’s prophecy was literally fulfilled forty years later. In 70 AD, the Roman military commander and future Roman Emperor, Titus Flavius Vespasianus, attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple. The Arch of Titus, in Rome, commemorates his victory over Jerusalem to this day.
The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, was present in Jerusalem when the Temple was destroyed. After describing the destruction of the countryside for ten miles surrounding the city, he recounted:
These Romans put the Jews to flight, and proceeded as far as the holy house itself. At which time one of the soldiers, without staying for any orders, and without any concern or dread upon him at so great an undertaking, and being hurried on by a certain divine fury, snatched some what out of the materials that were on fire, and being lifted up by another soldier, he set fire to a golden window, through which there wion, passage to the rooms that were round about the holy house, on the north side of it. As the flames went upward, the Jews made a great clamor, such as so mighty an affliction required, and ran together to prevent it; and now they spared not their lives any longer, nor suffered anything to restrain their force, since that holy house was perishing...thus it was the holy house burnt down...Nor can one imagine anything greater or more terrible than this noise; for there was at once a shout of the Roman Legions, who were marching all together, and a sad clamor of the seditious, who were now surrounded with fire and sword... the people under a great consternation, made sad moans at the calamity they were under...Yet was the misery itself more terrible than the disorder; for one would have thoughtthat the hill itself, on which the Temple stood, was seething hot, as full of fire on every part of it. (Josephus, Antiquities xi. 1.2)
To give a detailed account of their outrageous conduct is impossible, but we may sum it up by saying that no other city has ever endured such horrors, and no generation in history has fathered such wickedness. In the end they brought the whole Hebrew race into contempt in order to make their own impiety seem less outrageous in foreign eyes, and confessed the painful truth that they were slaves, the dregs of humanity, bastards, and outcasts of their nation. ...It is certain that when from the upper city they watched the Temple burning they did not turn a hair, though many Romans were moved to tears. (Josephus, The Jewish War, p. 292)
Pope St. Leo the Great (ca. 400-461 AD) spoke of this when he said “Virtue is nothing without the trial of temptation, for there is no conflict without an enemy, no victory without strife.” The enemies of Christ and his Church may seem to triumph for a time, but Christ by his death and Resurrection has won the ultimate victory for life. We will experience that ultimate victory at the end of time.
The prophecy of the destruction of the Temple has a double meaning. It applies to the destruction of the Temple that occurred in 70 AD. It also applies to the destruction of the world at the end of time. While we will probably not live to see the end of time, everyone on this earth will eventually experience death. We need to prepare ourselves for eternity. Pope St. Leo the Great reminded us of the fleeting nature of the world:
Short and fleeting are the joys of this world's pleasures which endeavorsto turn aside from the path of life those who are called to eternity. The faithful and religious spirit, therefore, must desire the things which are heavenly, and being eager for the Divine promises, lift itself to the love of the incorruptible Good and the hope of the true Light.
We have been warned, of course, that it profits us nothing if we gain the whole world and lose or forfeit ourselves. Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectation of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come. That is why, although we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress dearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.
When we have spread on earth the fruits of our nature and our enterprise - human dignity, sisterly and brotherly communion, and freedom - according to the command of the Lord and in his Spirit, we will find them once again, cleansed this time from the stain of sin, illuminated and transfigured, when Christ presents to his Father an eternal and universal kingdom "of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace." Here on earth the kingdom is mysteriously present; when the Lord comes it will enter into its perfection. (GS#39)
We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that wide circles of American society or wide circles of Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti-church, the Gospel versus the anti-gospel. This confrontation lies within the plan of divine Providence; it is a trial which the whole Church must take up.
Thirteen years later in 1989, Pope John Paul II witnessed the fall of Communism in Poland and then in the rest of Eastern Europe, a fall that he helped to bring about.
Just as Communism fell in Eastern Europe, so also we can defeat the culture of death. In 2000, Pope John Paul II encouraged us not give in to
...that type of defeatist mentality which claims that laws opposed to the right to life - those which legalize abortion, euthanasia, sterilization and methods of family planning opposed to life and the dignity of marriage - are inevitable and now almost a social necessity. On the contrary, they are a seed of corruption for society and its foundations. The civil and moral conscience cannot accept this false inevitability, any more than the idea that war or interethnic extermination is inevitable.Therefore, the Pope reminded us
no effort should be spared to eliminate legalized crime or at least to limit the damage caused by these laws, but with the vivid awareness of theradical duty to respect every human being's right to life from conception until natural death, including the life of the lowliest and the least gifted.
The Pope urgently called for "a general mobilization of consciences and a united ethical effort to activate a great campaign in support of life.” (EV#95)
Jesus warns us that there will be opposition and persecution as we seek to fulfill our mission in the world. He says this opposition may even come from family, friends or members of the Church, but we cannot and ust not be deterred. If we’re faithful to our mission, despite this opposition, we will the win the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4, 8) and like Christ we will rise, on the last day.