November 6, 2005: THIRTY-SECOND SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
A change which affects our daily routine is rarely easy to incorporate into our lives. A change which affects our faith brings an even deeper dimension of difficulty.
I was ordained a priest on Dec. 16, 1964, so I've never functioned without the changes and reforms of Vatican II being an essential part of my ministry. As difficult at times as that's been, integrating the council's changes into our faith life is easy compared to some of the changes our ancestors in the faith had to face.
I could always demonstrate from Scripture and early church history that those mid-sixties changes were simply a return to Jesus' original plan for those who choose to imitate him. The bishops were just calling us to go back to the models and practice of faith which had motivated that itinerant Galilean preacher. They could always fall back on a thing called precedent.
First century Christians experienced two changes for which there was no precedent. As we've seen during this cycle of gospel readings from Matthew, they first shifted from being a Jewish church to a Gentile church. But then even more disturbing, they had to replace their belief that the risen Jesus would triumphantly return in their lifetime, with a belief that his Parousia would take place only after they died.
Today's I Thessalonians passage is one of the earliest expressions of belief in Jesus' immanent return. Our gospel pericope is one of the latest. Matthew appears to be the last evangelist to believe Jesus would come back before he died.
As a child I asked my religion teacher, "What happens to those still alive when Jesus returns?" The Thessalonians asked Paul the opposite question. They originally seemed to believe no one would die before Jesus came back. So they wanted to know, "What happens if you die before that eventful day?" Do the dead miss out on the rewards handed out at the Parousia, or do they just have to go to the end of the line when the distribution takes place?
Paul assures his community that neither will happen. "For if we believe," he writes, "that Jesus died and rose, God will bring forth with him from the dead those also who have fallen asleep believing in him . . . We who live, who survive until his coming will in no way have an advantage over those who have fallen asleep." Had Paul written to the Thessalonians 50 years later, he would have to change parts of his theology. Few at that point believed Jesus' Parousia was just around the corner.
Writing in the late 70s, Matthew still believes Jesus will return soon. He simply wants to make certain his readers have enough "oil" in their lamps to welcome the bridegroom's arrival. His message is clear: "Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or the hour."
Within a few years of Matthew completing his gospel, Christians began to change their belief, and started to reflect on the implications of Jesus never coming back in their lifetime. It was a true "leap of faith." With no precedent for their theology, they were opening new doors of faith.
As disturbing as this change was, the author of Wisdom provides us with a rock of stability. In its biblical context, "wisdom" refers to one's ability to discover patterns in God's behavior by carefully observing God's creation. As the Wisdom author states, only those who take creation seriously will perceive and find wisdom.
Perhaps the only way we'll be able to accept those changes in our faith which have no precedent is to look carefully at how God is working through the people, things and situations we experience every day of our lives. In certain circumstances, we could be the people who are setting the precedents on which others will later fall back.