As we enter the closing days of the Liturgical Year 2013, those of you who pay close attention to the daily Mass readings will notice that a distinctly eschatological theme begins to develop in these days leading up to what will ultimately be the Feast of Christ the King and the last week of Ordinary Time. The readings in many daily Masses (such as today’s Gospel or tomorrow’s, or this coming Sunday’s Gospel) and even on Sundays begin to take on a distinctive apocalyptic character, and serve to remind all of us that one day we will answer for our lives before God, and indeed, as we used to say in the English Mass translation in use until a couple of years ago, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.”
We see these readings with a more distinctive focus on what we sometimes call the Last Things in the last days of Ordinary Time, and this focus usually carries over into the first couple of weeks of Advent, a season that reminds us not only of Christ’s first coming, but that there will be a second Advent, one in which he will come not as a baby in a stable cave, but in power and glory, forever to reign. The Church turns her collective attention each year to the Last Things as she also marks an end of one year and the beginning of another as a reminder to all of us that our time in this world is finite, and that it will end. Obsessing over “the end” is not the Catholic way, as it seems to be with some of our well-meaning brothers and sisters in other ecclesial communities.
Part of the reason for this is that Catholic eschatology, or belief about the end times, is very different than the beliefs about the end of days that many of our fellow Christians seem to embrace. Another more important reason for this lack of discussion about the end of days is that we know from both Scripture and other period accounts that the early Christians talked about “the end” quite a lot, and they obsessed over it. So much so, in fact, that St. Paul’s famous admonition that “if any will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10) was less a discussion of social policy and more a warning to a group within the Christian community who thought that the return of Christ was at hand, so why bother going about with normal daily living? The Church has had centuries of experience with people who had good reason to believe that the end was near, certainly in their minds, but the world still rolls on.
While it is never good to obsess over “the end,” the Church reminds us yearly on the calendar that all things come to an end, we will come to an end, and one day the world will come to an end. The end is a reality, and that reality could be any day for us, so the best thing that we can do is live each day as though it may be our last day, because it might.
From the earliest days of my recollection, I have always loved and been fascinated with clocks. I’ve never cared much for digital clocks, although our home is filled with them. I have always preferred clocks with traditional clock faces, and some of my favorite kinds of clocks are those with what are called “Westminster chimes,” so called because they chime different tones to tell the hearer when a quarter of an hour has passed, then 30 minutes, then three quarters of an hour, then for tonal chimes and bells on the hour, and the most famous clock in the world that does this is the clock in the Elizabeth Tower in the Palace of Westminster. We know its great bell as “Big Ben.” The way we measure time is directly tied to the rotation of the earth, it is how hours, minutes, and seconds are measured. This kind of time the ancient Greeks called chronos.
There is another kind of time, eternal time, God’s time, kairos-it literally means “the right moment.” We enter into this eternal time at every Mass, which is why we should not be terribly concerned about time when we attend Eucharist. The Church also gives us a way to use chronos for the purposes of kairos, or sacred time, in the Liturgical Year. The Liturgical Year begins with Advent and Christmas, celebrating Christ’s coming into the world. Lent is it’s season of atonement and penance, just as the ancient Israelites had on the Day of Atonement. Its high point comes as the Church remembers and celebrates the Paschal Mystery, and the rising of Christ to new life. The Liturgical Year concludes by remembering that as the year must come to an end, so all things will end at the Final Consummation.
The Church’s Year begins with Advent and ends with the Feast of Christ the King, reminding us that Christ reigns as King of the Universe forevermore. Many priests, deacons, and people of God keep a little book called the Ordo, or Order of Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours and Celebration of the Eucharist, that helps guide them through the Church’s calendar. A new Ordo comes out each year, and it has things like what feast day it is, what week of the psalter the Church is on in a given day, what the readings are for the day, vestment colors, a little about the saint of the day, and pastoral suggestions for a given day, week, season or holiday. On the very last page that shows the last day of the Church’s year (this year, that day is Saturday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time) are the true but very striking words “END OF THE YEAR OF GRACE 2013.”
It is a very small but poignant reminder that every year we are given in this life is a year of grace, given by God to draw us closer to him. Indeed, every day is a day of grace that God gives us to call us into union with him. Every day in this life and on this earth is an opportunity to avail ourselves of God’s infinite grace, of Jesus’ unfathomable mercy, to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God-because one day we won’t have that opportunity in this life any longer. Yet people run away from this grace, and flee far from Jesus’ mercy out of fear that somehow they aren’t good enough for Jesus, when all he wants is for people to come home to him.
The Lord wants all of us to bask in his grace. We should all accept his invitation to his “year of grace,” because he is so lovingly patient with us.