The great tribulation: sermon on the twenty-fourth and last Sunday after Pentecost

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

The prophecy of our Lord about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world is difficult for us to understand completely, since we are still waiting for it to be fulfilled. We can see how it was fulfilled in regard to Jerusalem, in the first century, but we do not fully see how it will be realised for the world as a whole, toward the end of time. This should not be surprising: Almighty God often makes His prophecies difficult, so that we may ask Him to increase our understanding of them, and so we may receive a greater share of His Holy Spirit as a result. In this way, we gain more strength to avoid the future evils which are prophesied and to receive the future good things. Thus, the very obscurity of the prophecies proves helpful for believers.

Yet, at the same time, our Lord indicates that even if the faithful cannot fully understand His words in advance, they should at least be able to recognise them as they are being fulfilled. From the fig tree, learn a parable: when its branch is now tender and the leaves come forth, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, know that he is near, at the gates. 

What is meant by “all these things”? The first thing to be mentioned in this gospel for the last Sunday of the year is the abomination of desolation, standing in the holy place. In St Mark’s gospel we read, the abomination of desolation, standing where it ought not. In both passages, the evangelist adds the words, “Let him who reads understand”. The Holy Ghost, it appears, did not want to tell us in advance what the abomination of desolation would be; He wants us to remain alert. In St Luke’s gospel, we have what seems like a slightly different sign of the approach of great tribulation: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, know that its devastation is at hand.”

All this was fulfilled, in a certain fashion, in the first century. The Roman armies encircled the city, but then they withdrew for a time, which gave the faithful the opportunity to escape. History even records that when they left Jerusalem, they took with them the episcopal throne of St Simeon, the cousin of our Lord, who had succeeded St James as the bishop of the city. The holy place was also “desolated”, or profaned, at this time, both by the images of pagan gods on the military standards of the Romans, and by the murders which rival factions of Jews committed against each other as they hid in the temple. 

Yet all those events, interesting as they are, are history for us. If we continue to read these words of Christ, it is because His words are also prophetic of the end of the world. For the Jewish temple was a figure of the Catholic Church. The Church is now the holy place. The abomination which causes desolation, standing where it ought not, appears therefore to be something terrible in the Church which causes many to lose their faith and to fall away. Of course there have been scandals and heresies throughout the history of the Church; there have been widespread simony, patriarchs who have taken whole patriarchates into schism, immorality among lower and higher clergy, and even popes of immoral lives. What then could the abomination be? Perhaps it is dangerous even to speculate. But it seems like something in the Church, which threatens to make the Church desolate — that is, which threatens the continued existence of Christianity itself, attacking the Church’s creed, sacraments, and moral law. Likewise, by armies surrounding the holy city, we could understand the temporal powers of the world — that is, its governments, united against the Church — for the governments of the world derive their strength ultimately from their armies.

When we see such things, Jesus tells us to flee to the mountains. The first Christians had to do this literally; they fled to the mountains outside Judaea, and thus they were saved when the city was burnt down. But now that Judea has become the Church and has spread throughout the world, what are the mountains? We cannot flee outside the world! I think that the mountains may mean the saints; does not Dante, in the Divine Comedy, say that St Peter and St Paul reminded him of mountains when he saw them? The saints are mountains by the greatness of their merits and by the sublimity of their writings. We flee to these mountains by following their examples, and learning from their counsels, and entrusting ourselves to their protection. The dogmas of the Church are also mountains, firm and immoveable.

“Alas for those who are with child and for those who give suck, in those days. Pray that your flight may not be in winter, or on the sabbath.”

The literal application of this for the faithful in Jerusalem was, again, easy to understand. What is its meaning for us? The commentators understand all these things to pertain to the spiritual life. St Paul compared the Galatians to women who had recently conceived a child, and he said that he was suffering until Christ was formed in them. He told the Corinthians that they were like babies who could manage only milk, not solid food. So those who are with child and those who give suck seem to be those who have not advanced much in the spiritual life — Christ is not yet fully formed in them, and they are not yet giving adult food to their souls. It is obvious that such people will find it harder to resist in times of persecution. Likewise, when it is winter, that is, when the warmth of charity is lacking in their surroundings, people always find it harder to persevere and to remain active in doing good. How much more so, when the time of the great tribulation finally arrives. 

“Then, if anyone shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; do not believe them.” False Messiahs sought followers at the time of the Jewish rebellion against the Romans, both in the desert and in the inner chambers of the Temple. For us, this is obviously a reminder not to imagine that our Lord might return to earth secretly, before His coming in glory to judge the living and the dead. But it also reminds us not to look for new messages from Christ, as if we did not already have enough to guide us to heaven. It is true that our Lord in His love for His people does sometimes choose a person to pass on messages of encouragement to other members of the Church; we have only to think of St Margaret Mary Alacoque, for example. But we should not eagerly go looking for such messages, since, as St John of the Cross warns us, that is a sure way to be deceived. Nor should we think that such messages, even when genuine, are necessary for our salvation. We already possess, in public revelation, all that is necessary. As one early writer puts it, commenting on the words, As the lightning comes from the east and appears even into the west, “the lightning of truth appears in every passage of the Scriptures”, from the beginning to the end.

Finally, our Lord shows us that our greatest source of strength will be the Holy Eucharist. “Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together.” The Greek word which is translated as “body” here means a body that has “fallen”, that is, died. Christ’s body in the Blessed Sacrament is, of course, living and glorious. Yet it is also the same body which died on Calvary; and in the Mass, the passion of Jesus is placed sacramentally before our eyes. When we receive Him, therefore, we receive Him, as the theologians say, “in the state of Victim”; that is, we receive Him as the One who offered Himself to the Father for our sins, and who continues to offer Himself. Therefore, just as Christ endured from sinners such hostility against himself, as St Paul writes to the Hebrews, so by receiving Him in Holy Communion we receive strength to persevere even in persecution, and so will the Christians who live in the time of the great tribulation, and who if they persevere will surely all be saints, as different from us as eagles from sparrows. 

The feast of the great St Andrew is at the end of this month. St Mark tells us that our Lord delivered this discourse about the end of the world to Andrew, as well as Peter, James and John. It is the only time in the gospel that he is placed with these three, apart from all the rest of the apostles. I think this indicates to us that St Andrew will have a special role to play in the last times, in helping the faithful to persevere manfully. After all, his very name means “manliness” or “courage” in Greek. No doubt we should invoke him also in our own difficult times.