I have friend who lives in Paris with his wife and little 5 year old daughter who has been much in my prayers since the terrible events there on Friday. They are safe, but the whole horror of human violence hits one especially hard when it is so close to home. It could have been London! And it reminds us all of the thousands of others who are not safe, and who cower in refugee camps, or on the side of the road, as they flee the fighting in the Middle East. I saw a chart this week showing how dangerous different animals were to us humans. The animal that kills most humans might surprise you, as it is the mosquito; but the next most dangerous animal on the list is our fellow human beings – the terrifying cruelty and carnage that we can inflict on one another.
Being a Christian, saying our prayers, coming to Mass, does not mean we are safe from such dangers. Indeed more Christians face death for their faith than those belonging to any other world religion. So perhaps one of the things we most should pray for is not safety, but courage. Courage to serve our fellow men and women, even those who oppose our way of life, however hard it is, and courage to face the future, however hard the road.
This week we celebrated three saints all noted especially for their courage. Faced with Attila the Hun rampaging with his army towards Rome, St Leo went out and negotiated with him. Determined to bring his Orthodox Church in Ukraine into union with Rome, St Josaphat did it, but was eventually murdered by his enemies; and my own St Martin faced a hard life as a Bishop setting an example of love and service in the midst of many who opposed him.
Two of our readings today (Daniel 12:1-3 & Mark 13:24-32) use very colourful language to express the dangers that all of us face, if not in this life, then in the moment of death – the end of all things for us. They both use the same phrase to describe it – “times of distress”. And Jesus goes on to use the classic imagery of his age to describe all this. Of course such language is not to be taken literally – the clouds and the angels are images to describe heaven – but they express a deeper reality hidden beneath. But both passages go on to tell us that whatever we face, in the end, we will be with God.
Jesus says very clearly, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” And “words” here means a lot more than just words. Words, for us humans, express at their best, as they are in Jesus, the heart of what we are, the thing that makes us more than just flesh and blood and bone. Words are the outward expression of all our thoughts, our hopes, our stories. Words mean beauty in art and music and dance. And words, of course, are what we use to express the love and care and compassion that Jesus teaches us to share with others, however hard life may be.
Coming to Mass will not in itself give us the courage and holiness of the saints. For if we are not open to the grace and power that is present here, it will not help at all. But if we are open, then all that we need to endure whatever comes, will be given to us, even if at the time, we feel nothing. We won’t be perfect of course. In the end all of us will face God, knowing that we did not do as much as we could have done; but we also know, as our 2nd Reading says, that Jesus has “achieved the eternal perfection of all whom he is sanctifying. (Hebrews 10:14) So at every Mass, if we are open to it, Jesus is “sanctifying” us – which means making us holy. Holy enough to face whatever we have to face, and to endure it!
Unlike the terrifying nonsense of some fundamentalists, (Christian as well as Muslim) we do not believe that we will be wafted to paradise, the moment we die. We believe that all of us have to face a reckoning before God ; for, being sanctified, being made perfect, is not and will not be an easy process for any of us, and I doubt that some very evil people who kill others will get through it, which is why I believe in hell. Coming to Mass, and opening ourselves up to God, and then living that out daily, is what we need to help us on our final journey. It means that we need not be afraid.
The words of the hymn that follows expresses all this well.
Mid toil and tribulation,
And tumult of her war,
We wait the consummation
Of peace for evermore;
Till, with the vision glorious,
Our longing eyes are blest,
And the great Church victorious
Shall be the Church at rest.