HOMILY WEEK 34 05 – Year II
Experiencing the Newness of the Kingdom of God:
Optional Memorial of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr
(Rev 20:1-21:2; Ps 84; Lk 21:29-33)
There is a scene in Mel Gibson’s movie Passion of the Christ in which Jesus, bloodied and battered from his torture and carrying the cross, meets his mother Mary and, to the viewer’s surprise and perhaps even shock, states to her simply, “Behold, I am making all things new!”
Today’s readings transform this movie into a real-life drama for us, by inviting us to experience the newness of the kingdom of God through deep faith, genuine love and humble self-awareness.
It is natural, as the days shorten, temperatures drop, snow falls and the year draws to a close, to contemplate more deeply the end of our own lives, and our readiness for that eventual realty. Within that ethos, the church offers us readings that have a more apocalyptic tone, such as today’s gospel. In this passage from Luke, Jesus speaks of the end of time in a kind of coded, mystical language designed to encourage precisely that kind of reflection. He mentions the nearness of the kingdom of God, that all things will have taken place within this generation, that his words are eternal even though heaven and earth will pass away.
The first reading fast-forwards us into the last days of the evangelist St. John and his vision in Revelations, which also utilizes symbolic and imaginative language to provoke reflection on saints and martyrs, life and death, and the final judgement. We are told there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and a new Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God adorned like a bride for her husband.”
What are we to make of all this apocalyptic language? I would like to suggest one practical interpretation – in all of this, we are invited to enter into the newness of God’s kingdom, here and now, by our deep faith in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ, express that faith through practical works of love and mercy, and place this faith and love into the crucible of a healing journey of self-awareness, a living out of our purgatory here and now.
When Jesus states that the kingdom of heaven is near and all these things will have taken place before this generation passes away, and when St. John speaks of an angel coming down from heaven, evil being overcome, the final judgement and a new heaven and earth, they are, I believe, referring to the central truth of our salvation history, the reason for the Incarnation. That is the Paschal Mystery of Jesus – his passion, death, resurrection, appearances to his friends, ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Spirit upon the band of believers huddled in the upper room, transforming them into the church, the Body of Christ in the world.
It was this mystery that took place within that generation, and by which Jesus was making all things new – the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven here on earth with its radically new way of life – that transformed evil, violence, suffering, sin and death into peace, total non-violence, holiness and new, eternal life experienced here and now.
Here is how one writer, Brian McLaren, articulates this new reality: “In God’s kingdom order becomes opportunity, stability melts into movement and change, status-quo government gives way to a revolution of community and neighborliness, policy bows to love, domination descends to service and sacrifice, control morphs into influence and inspiration, and vengeance and threats are transformed into forgiveness and blessing.”
Our participation in this kingdom is facilitated by our own healing journey into greater self-awareness of our own lives – our personal qualities, but also our sins, our painful emotions, our negative attitudes and especially our addictions. We all stand in need of forgiveness and healing, and blessed are those who have the humility to finally see themselves as others see them, who are finally able to name, claim, not blame, tame or seek healing for this shadow side of their personalities, and then we can aim it or help others on their healing journey.
This is experiencing the passion of Jesus in our own deeply personal way, going through the pain of becoming aware of some hidden attitude or behavioral trait, dying to it by letting it go, and rising to a new, healthier and holier way of being in this world. It is, as mentioned earlier, living our purgatory now, because we cannot drag into heaven any unfinished business, anything that does not belong there, as only love constitutes that kingdom. In a way, it is us judging ourselves now.
This strikes a personal note for me as recently I have been made aware of some deep-seated attitudes and behaviors of mine that were hurtful to others, without my being conscious of them. I know first-hand that the truth hurts, but I know it also sets us free, for now I already feel lighter and happier because of this new awareness in my life.
This new freedom has one purpose – to be expressed in practical works of love – such as the spiritual works of mercy (converting sinners, instructing the ignorant, advising the doubtful, comforting the sorrowful, bearing wrongs patiently, forgiving injuries, praying for the living and the dead) and especially the corporal works of mercy (feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, giving drink to the thirsty and burying the dead).
It is sobering to realize these, above all, are the criteria for entering the kingdom of heaven. It is clear to St. John, as it is in the Letter of James, that we will be judged by our works of love expressing our faith, and not just by our faith alone. John mentions this twice – the “dead are judged according to their works”, and “according to what they have done.” For James, famously, faith without works is dead.
Here is a little glimpse of a kingdom moment in real life. As John was on his way to a class, a drunk called out to him, asking for a dollar. John was hesitant to give money for an addiction and asked him why he wanted a dollar. The drunk said he needed two dollars for the bus. He was very demanding and in his face. John finally gave him the money. The drunk clasped his fist, and called him an old fool. John was hurt and asked why he said that. The man responded because he had trusted him. The next day, praying before the crucifix, it dawned on him that is what we say to the Lord when we say we are sorry but continue to do the same thing – we say to God, “You old fool, you trusted me.” But we can always come back, and God will be there for us with mercy and forgiveness.
St. Catherine, whom we honor today, was a woman of learning in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. At the age of 18 she converted to Christianity, and was imprisoned for speaking publicly against the Emperor Maximinus’ persecution of Christians. While in prison, she was visited by the empress and the leader of the armed forces, both of whom converted. For this she and they were martyred. Tortured by being strapped to a spiked wheel, Catherine was eventually beheaded about 130 A.D. She is a patron of librarians, teachers, students, jurists, nurses, unmarried girls, philosophers, those who work with wheels (potters, spinners, mechanics, etc.) the dying and several other groups.
The Eucharist is a profound act of faith, includes a moment of genuine self-awareness in the penitential rite, and makes present the unconditional love and forgiveness of Jesus on the cross. May our celebration deepen our faith in Jesus, grant us inner healing, and empower us to express our faith through practical works of love, as we collaborate in building up the kingdom of God here and now.