The eschatological discourse: sermon on the first Sunday of Advent

See the fig-tree and all the trees

The Holy Ghost has inspired the Church to meditate upon two similar passages from the gospels on the last Sunday of the old liturgical year and on the first Sunday of the new one.  On the last Sunday of the old year, the twenty-fourth after Pentecost, we hear a long extract from the twenty-fourth chapter of St Matthew.  It is taken from what is called the ‘eschatological discourse’ of Christ; that is, His prophecy about the last things.  On the first Sunday of the new year, that is, on the first Sunday of Advent, the Roman church has a shorter extract from the end of St Luke’s version of this same discourse.  The new year thus begins, so to speak, where the old one ended; and so we do not feel, at the start of a new liturgical year, as if we were simply beginning again a cycle which we have often repeated before.  Rather, we feel, as is also the reality, that we are moving forward through time, coming ever closer to the last day, which will be the day of the Lord’s return in glory. 

But there is perhaps another reason why holy Church repeats, at least in part, Christ’s eschatological words on both sides of the liturgical year. It is because He was responding to two distinct questions which were put to Him by Peter, James, John and Andrew, while He was seated on the mount of Olives opposite the Temple, just a few days before the Passion. The first question was about the destruction of the Temple, since He had just prophesied that “Not a stone would be left upon a stone.” The second question was about the signs of His coming and of the end of the age. The use of this discourse by the liturgy on two successive Sundays reminds us that it serves to answer both of these questions.

We may wonder why our Lord chose to reply to the apostles’ enquiries about the destruction of the temple and the end of the world by a single prophecy. For it seems that they imagined both of these events as happening at the same time, as two aspects of a single, divine “catastrophe”. Christ could have corrected this opinion, but that would have meant teaching the apostles explicitly about the setting aside of the Jews and the entering in of the Gentiles in their place, “until the fullness of the gentiles has come in”. Perhaps that was one of the things of which Jesus said at the last Supper that they were not yet able to bear, as the Holy Spirit had not yet been given to them. 

Yet Christ’s words, of course, cannot be misleading; and so, if He chose to answer these two questions with one prophecy, this must be because the apostles were in a way correct. It is not that the destruction of the Temple was the end of the world, but that it is a figure of the end of the world, and God wishes us to see it as such, so that we may be better prepared for what will happen in the last days.

What, then, are the similarities between the two events? First of all, we should not think of the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in the year 70 as merely the end of an impressive religious building. If St Peter’s in Rome, or the Lateran basilica, were to be destroyed tomorrow by the violence of man or nature, then Catholics would be deeply sorrowful, but we should not feel as if our religion had come to an end. The Temple was different. It was the one place on earth where God’s people had been able to offer to Him an acceptable sacrifice during the Old Covenant. The Law of Moses made no provision for sacrifice to be offered elsewhere: rather, it expressly stated that there was to be just one place of sacrifice, in the place which God Himself had chosen; that is, Jerusalem. It was there that all Jews had to resort three times a year, at their three greatest feasts, as well as for other purposes, such as the redemption of their first-born sons.

The destruction of the Temple therefore meant the end of the Old Covenant, that covenant which went back, in one sense, to Moses, fifteen hundred years before, and, in another sense, to Abraham, some two thousand or more years before. It is true that the temple had been destroyed once previously, by the Babylonians: but before and after that event, God had taught the people through His prophets to look forward to a joyful return to Mount Sion, and to a restoration of the sacrifices. No such promise was given on this occasion.

But in a similar way, Christ’s coming in glory will bring an end to the form of worship which He instituted, and which His people have used ever since. It will not be the end of the New Covenant, since this is, as the priest says each time that he consecrates the chalice, the “new and everlasting covenant”. But it will mean the end of the sacramental signs by which we are sanctified under the New Covenant. In the new Heaven and the new earth, there will be no more sacraments: no Masses will be offered, no children baptised or confirmed, no confessions heard, no new priests or bishops made, no sick people anointed, no marriages contracted. As Jeremiah and St Paul prophesy: “No one will instruct his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for all will know me, from the least to the greatest.” When the saints see God as He is, face to face, they will not need sacramental signs. As the animal sacrifices of the Jews gave way to the sacraments of the Church, so these too will give way to the life of glory. “Heaven and earth will pass away.”

Next, we learn from our Lord’s way of answering the apostles’ questions that His coming in glory must be preceded by great tribulation. Not just the ordinary tribulations which St Paul says are part of life for anyone “who wishes to live devoutly in Christ Jesus”, but “such as was not from the beginning of the world, nor shall be” again. Secular history tells us not only of the unimaginable sufferings of the Jews in Jerusalem during the siege and capture of the city, and the vast numbers who died there and throughout Israel, but also of the strange kind of madness that seemed to descend on them during that siege, as they turned upon each other and slew each other. It is as if, once God had removed His protecting hand from the Jews, the devil was free to manifest his fury against the people from whom had come the Messiah and the Woman who together had crushed his head. 

We must therefore expect that some analogous tribulation will fall upon God’s people of the New Covenant, upon Catholics, before the end of the world. But “analogous” does not mean “the same”. It is by no means certain that the “great tribulation” will be primarily one of open persecution. Cardinal Newman speculated that in the last days, the devil would attempt a persecution more by guile than by force, trying to induce the faithful to abandon the faith little by little, so that they hardly realised what they were doing. It is, after all, primarily the destruction of souls and not of bodies which he desires.

Finally, our Lord mentions a certain sign which seems to apply, though in different ways, both to His judgement upon Jerusalem in the year 70 and to His return as judge of mankind at the end of the world. This is the sign of the ripening tree. But here, St Luke, in this gospel of the first Sunday of Advent, gives us a detail which we did not find in St Matthew. In St Matthew and in St Mark, we read only of a fig tree:

“From the fig tree, learn a parable. When its branch is now tender, and it brings forth leaves, you know that summer is nigh.”

But St Luke tells us that Christ also said to the four apostles, “See the fig tree and all the trees; when they now bring forth fruit from themselves, you know that summer is nigh.” Now, why does He go on to mention “all the trees”? What does this add to the parable? And why does He speak once of leaves and once of fruit?

The fig tree, in the gospels, often means the Jews. Only the previous morning, our Lord had pronounced a malediction on the fig tree with leaves and no fruit, and it had withered up within a day. That was a sign of how He had come to His own people, and had found in them an abundance of words about God, but not the good works which He desired. But if the fig tree represents Judaea, then “all the trees” seem to represent the other nations. Hence, it was when the Gentiles, after having being barren for so long time, began at last to “bear fruit of themselves”; that is, to produce good works by the divine grace which they had received, that judgement came upon Jerusalem. Thus, St Paul, writing to the Colossians just before the year 70 could say, “the gospel has been spread through the whole world and does not cease to bear fruit.” But from the words of Christ recorded by St Luke, we learn that one day the fig tree itself will begin to bear no longer leaves only, but “fruit of itself”. When that day comes, we shall know for sure that “He is near, even at the gates”.