Chapter 26: The Second Coming
What do we mean by the “end” of all things? When and how will the end come? What reward or punishment will we receive at the end? What is the required attitude as we wait for the end? These are some examples of questions that may be asked about eschatology, that is, “the last things”. The Gospel uses an apocalyptic style when talking about the last things, while the Church’s teaching gives us clear theological points in saying that there are two judgements for each person: one, the particular judgement, on the day of our death; and another final, communal judgement, the “Last Judgement”, on the day of the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ.
Let us read first a text from the eschatological discourse, this discourse which runs over two chapters (Mt 24-25), then let us shed light on the images and symbols that speak of the experience of waiting for the Lord; and then give the theological and spiritual teaching on the theme of eschatology.
2- Reading and understanding the Gospel: The Second Coming (Mt 24:32-44)
32 “Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33So with you when you see all these things: know that he is near, at the very gates. 34I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. 35Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. 36But as for that day and hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, no one but the Father only.
37 “As it was in Noah’s day, so will it be when the Son of Man comes. 38For in those days before the Flood people were eating, drinking, taking wives, taking husbands, right up to the day Noah went into the ark, 39and they suspected nothing till the Flood came and swept all away. It will be like this when the Son of Man comes. 40Then of two men in the fields one is taken, one left; 41of two women at the millstone grinding, one is taken, one left.
42 “So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. 43You may be quite sure of this that if the householder had known at what time of the night the burglar would come, he would have stayed awake and would not have allowed anyone to break through the wall of his house. 44Therefore, you too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.
2. 1- Explanation
In a fifth and final discourse, Jesus teaches his disciples on the theme of the Last Things and the coming of the Kingdom. The discourse begins following a question from the disciples: “Tell us, when is this going to happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the world?” (24:3). And so, Jesus responds in the next two chapters (Mt 24 and Mt 25), without interruption, until 26:1, indicating in apocalyptic style, how the end will come, and bringing together at the end four parables (the conscientious steward, the ten bridesmaids, the talents, and the Last Judgement), emphasizing the importance of preparing for the Lord’s Second Coming, through work, wakefulness and prayer. Jesus did not respond in his discourse to the question of “when”, he taught instead about “how” the end will be and the necessary attitude to prepare to receive it.
Among the characteristics of apocalyptic literature, which spans three centuries (from 200 BC to 100 AD), there are the characters of secrecy, symbolic language, and the theme of the Son of Man. This type of literature, born during persecutions and tribulations, is a message of encouragement to the faithful, a confirmation in faith, and a promise of God’s final victory. The apocalyptic language is full of metaphors and obscure images – he does not name things by name – and it borrows symbolic names from the Old Testament. All this happens because it is a reflection of the dangerous circumstances at the time of writing. For early Christians, the eschatological discourse focuses on two important events: the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the end of the world with the coming of Jesus as judge. Indeed, these two events have been mixed up to such an extent that it has become difficult to know whether such verses speak of such an event or not. But the theological truth is that the destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the establishment of the spiritual and definitive reign of God, in place of the Jewish and temporal one.
In today’s Gospel (Mt 24:32-44), we find two images: the fig tree and the Flood. Before this, Jesus had spoken of the end in other images: misleading of the faithful, the falling of stars from the sky, the cooling of love between people, etc. From these images, Jesus stresses the importance of signs and their reading. “as soon as its [the fig tree’s] twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near” (v.32). The importance of the signs lies in the reading and interpretation. On the second day after Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem (21:18-22), he cursed a fig tree because it bore no fruit. As for the image of the fig tree, there are symbolic dimensions: this is the face of the Jewish people from whom the Lord had waited for the fruit of faith, but which was not produced, just like the vine, which also yielded no fruit (Isaiah 5). The second image in today’s Gospel is that of the flood (vv.37-39); this also speaks symbolically of the second creation, which is completely outside our expectations. This creation will come to us, not during sleep, but during our waking and working hours (two men in the fields; two women at the millstone grinding). Jesus ends his teaching with the emphasis on the importance of vigilance, because the time of the end – the end of our life (death) and the end of the world – is not known to any person, just like the burglar who comes unexpectedly during the night.
2. 2- Summary and Practice
The end will come one day. The Lord wants us to prepare for our eternity with our own selves. He asks us to be attentive and vigilant. This state of readiness means behaviour consistent with our faith, showing the veracity of our spiritual attitudes. To be ready always requires on our part a heart that is wakeful. Apathy and laziness (Parable of the Conscientious Steward 24:46), not filling our lamps with oil (Parable of the Bridesmaids 25:3), and not developing our talents (Parable of the Talents 25:26) are reasons that show that our behaviour is not consistent with the criteria of the Kingdom.
In apocalyptic literature, the theme of “time” occurs. The coming of the Kingdom is near, but we don’t know exactly when; it may be now or after a certain time. Jesus asks us to live our present life as if we are already at the end of time, not in the far future, but rather in the present time. This requires immediate repentance and a change of lifestyle now, not tomorrow, knowing that God is the Lord of history, that He is beyond time, and he sees our present and our future. The Word of Jesus is immutable: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never away pass” (24:35). The good news of salvation shall not change, despite the changes of time and place of its proclamation, and we should live as if each moment is the last one in our life, ready to meet the Lord; indeed, he will not delay his coming!
3- Theological and Spiritual Teaching: Eschatology
[…] and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come
The resurrection of Christ is the basis of the Christian faith. St Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless … But Christ has in fact been raised from the dead, the first-fruits of all who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:12-20). Resurrection is the centre of our faith because, on the one hand, it revealed to the disciples the truth of the divinity of Jesus Christ, and on the other hand, it is the pledge of our own resurrection, since we will be raised through his Resurrection. Christ has saved us from all kinds of evils, and as St Paul says: “The last of the enemies to be destroyed is death” (1Cor 15:26). That is why the faithful glorify Christ and give him thanks, for by his Resurrection he has given us the grace of his victory and his eternal life.
Talking about eternal life brings us back to dealing with another theme, that of judgement. Man will be treated according to his works and behaviour. Is it true that God will judge human beings? In fact, we can say that, before His light, we will see our life in all its truth then, all the lies and false opinions that blinded us will pass before us. Thus, the landmarks on which we have built our life will be clear to us. Was it built on love? On faith? For the good? Or, have we built on the sand of dreams and works we thought were large and important, when in reality they are vain and not life-giving. Judgement will lay bare our choices, and there, each person will take responsibility for his actions and attitudes. Judgement is like fire burning away the outer layer in order to lay bare the secrets of people. Then everyone will become aware of what his life was really like. Before this reality, believers will renew their trust in God’s mercy and not in their own merits. Indeed, this mercy has filled us during this life on earth and we hope for the life to come. It is difficult for us to judge ourselves as long as we live on this earth, in the same way that we cannot judge others. We listen to God’s voice for our daily choices and trust in His mercy on the day of judgement.
When will the judgement take place? In fact, it has two aspects: the first is personal, individual, and will come on the day of our death, which marks the end of time for us and the beginning of God’s eternity. The second part of the judgement is communal and cosmic; each of us will be in communion with the whole world and will assume our responsibility on a personal and communal level. That is why we say that after death, each of us will await the last day, when the Lord Jesus returns in great glory, and when he will be all in all. This will mark the end of the world, that is, its fulfilment. We will then recognize not only our truth, but also the truth of the world.
4- Reading and Meditation: A Reading from the Documents of the Second Vatican Council
The Enigma of Death
It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence grows most acute. Not only is man tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of his body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. He rightly follows the intuition of his heart when he abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his own person. He rebels against death because he bears in himself an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavours of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety, for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in his breast.
Although the mystery of death utterly beggars the imagination, the Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that man has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery. In addition, that bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned (cf. Wis 1:13; 2:23-24; Rom 5:21; 6:23; Jas 1:15) will be vanquished, according to the Christian faith, when man who was ruined by his own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Saviour. For God has called man and still calls him so that with his entire being he might be joined to him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when he rose to life, for by his death he freed man from death (cf. 1Cor 15:56-57). Hence, to every thoughtful man a solidly established faith provides the answer to his anxiety about what the future holds for him. At the same time, faith gives him the power to be united in Christ with his loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God.28