“The kingdom of God, beloved brothers and sisters, has drawn near,” wrote St. Cyprian. “The reward of life, the joy of eternal salvation, the perpetual happiness and the possession of paradise once lost are now coming as the world passes away.” Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, wrote in the third century. Was he wrong in saying the kingdom of God is near? Or that the world is passing away? No, and today’s readings can help us more deeply appreciate his perspective.
Centuries earlier, the prophet Malachi wrote of an approaching day of judgment and justice, a day “blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch ...” Malachi was writing in the fifth century B.C., after the people had returned to Jerusalem from exile, and he proclaimed the need for deep spiritual and institutional reform, especially among the priesthood. Those who fear and follow God, he said, will see the “sun of justice” arising, a sun with “healing rays.” The prophet wrote of a future messenger — identified as Elijah, the prophet — who would arrive “before the day of the Lord comes, the great and terrible day” (Mal 3:23).
That messenger was John the Baptist, and the “sun of justice” was Jesus of Nazareth. As John preached repentance, he also preached about a man mightier than himself. “I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Everyone will be judged by the Son of Justice, and this strong truth is found throughout the Gospels. The difficulty, however, is while God’s judgment has begun and is ongoing, it will not be fully realized and revealed until the End.
Likewise, the kingdom of God has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, but it also has not been fully realized and revealed, and will not be until the End. We are understandably interested in “The End.” Today’s Gospel is part of one of the “little apocalypses” (see Mk 13; Mt 24), which are equally fascinating and baffling. Keep in mind that Jesus spoke about three different events or realities: First, the persecution of Christians prior to the fall of the Temple in A.D. 70 (Lk 21:12-19); second, the time of the fall of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman army (Lk 21:5-11, 20-24); third, the time of the Son of Man (Lk 21:25-38).
While a careful reading shows that Jesus distinguished between these three events, it also indicates they are closely related. For example, the divine judgment that fell upon the Temple in Jerusalem in A.D. 70 not only validated Jesus’ pronouncements about a new and everlasting covenant, it also served as a microcosm of the Final Judgment, when the “temple” of the world will be judged once and for all.
The prophet Malachi longed for a time when the faithful would be liberated from the hands of “the proud” and “the evildoers.” Similarly, many first-century Jews were anxious for a liberation from Roman rule that would be political — and violent — in nature.
But Jesus repeatedly taught and demonstrated that the kingdom of God liberates us from the worst and ultimate enemies: sin and death. The King and the kingdom have drawn near, and we partake of them in liturgy and the Eucharist. But, as the apostle Paul indicates, there is much “toil and drudgery.” Yet the daily grind should not dull us to the fact this world is passing away.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.