Homily for November 13, 2016Published:
In today’s gospel, Jesus and his disciples are walking through the city of Jerusalem, and the disciples are impressed by the magnificence of the Temple there. Of course, the original Jewish Temple had been built by King Solomon and destroyed at the conquest by the Babylonians. The Temple being referred to in today’s gospel is the second Temple, built by King Herod the Great, in the first century before Christ. Temples come and go. According to the historian Josephus, Herod desired to perpetuate his name with great construction projects. In some ways it makes sense. After all, leaving behind permanent monuments to one’s existence seems like a good way to ensure one’s legacy. Of his many projects, Herod’s masterpiece was the Temple of Jerusalem. And elsewhere, in John’s gospel, it is mentioned in passing that the Temple had been under construction for forty-six years. It was truly a magnificent structure, a marvel of engineering in its time. Tacitus, another historian, speaks of the immense opulence of the temple. Among its treasures, there was a golden table, given by Pompey, and several golden vines of exquisite workmanship and immense size. As the disciples note today, the Temple was also adorned with costly stones and the many gifts people had brought to it in thanksgiving for divine favors that they had received. It was probably awe-inspiring, and likely not a few of the disciples thought it would last forever.
It is appropriate then, that Jesus uses this opportunity to give a lesson about the end of things. Jesus said, “All that you see here—the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” It is an important truth to keep in mind; all created things come to an end. There is a famous poem by Percy Shelley called Ozymandias. It goes as follows:
I met a traveler from an antique land, Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand, half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown and wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, tell that its sculptor well those passions read, which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.
There is an appointed time for everything: buildings, cities, nations, peoples. They each have their beginning, but they also each have their end. And as Jesus says, eventually even the earth will pass away. In the end, the only thing that is timeless and enduring is God. Whatever God does will endure forever. And the word of God will not pass away.
Of course, the end of things applies to us as well. The Bible reminds us often of our mortality as human beings. You are dust, and to dust you shall return. The dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it. Fittingly, Jesus’s words about the destruction of the Temple, could be applied to us as well. Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For those who are young, and in excellent health, they might even think of their bodies in the way people spoke of the Temple in Jerusalem: strong, magnificent, well adorned, and inspiring admiration. And yet the days will come when not a cell will be a left upon a cell in your body, that will not be separated. For the young, such a reality seems very far away. But life is uncertain, and we know not the day or the hour when it will end.
Why would God ask us to think about these things? Assuredly, the intent is not to be morbid or depressing. Rather, I think one purpose is to encourage us toward a freedom of spirit. The danger for human beings is to believe that anything on Earth lasts forever, and then overly to rely on it, to become dependent on it. Even great temples and nations are built and destroyed in their time. If we are too attached to something that is not permanent, eventually it will result in us being affected by anxiety and fear that we will lose it, and depression if we do lose it. This is not to say that we shouldn’t care about people and things. We should strive for and love good things and good people, as the Lord has given them to us. But everything in its proper context. If we love and depend on God first, then we have an anchor of stability in our lives, if and when we lose other things. Then we will have the ability to say with Job, the Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.
And there is also an agility of spirit and purpose to which we are called by God. The transience of all things will become more and more real for us, as we age. We may lose longtime friends and companions, either from distance or by death. We may lose material possessions. We may lose abilities, opportunities, and good health that were once available to us. But through all of these changes, we are called to understand that in every new circumstance of life in which we find ourselves, there is God. In every circumstance of life in which we find ourselves, we have our tasks and work to do alongside God, those good things that we are capable of doing. In life, there is no dead end. There is no point where we have nothing else to do. If we can no longer do what we once did, what is God calling us to do now? The challenge for us is that of continuing discernment. And the call of God to do new and different things is a continual blessing for us. Ultimately, working with God is life-giving for us and for others. The tragedy is not if we have something to do; we are happier and more fulfilled when we can make a contribution. No, the true tragedy is if we are unwilling to do something different, and refuse God’s invitation. So, are we agile enough in our spirit to respond to God if He calls us to do something new and different?
In this Eucharist, we pray for the grace to count our days aright, to know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart. And, may we be free to love and serve God in all of the changing circumstances of our life. Amen.
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