First Sunday of Advent, Sermon #2, by Bishop Geremia Bonomelli, D.D.

At that time Jesus said to His disciples: There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves; men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the whole world; for the powers of heaven shall be moved; and then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty. But when these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is at hand. And He spoke to them a similitude: See the fig-tree, and all the trees; when they now shoot forth their fruit, you know that summer is nigh. So you also when you shall see these things come to pass, know that the kingdom of God is at hand. Amen I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away; but My words shall not pass away. – Luke 21:25-33

Hearing these words falling from the lips of Jesus Christ you would assuredly say that they had reference to the end of time, to the Last Judgment, with which the drama of this world will close and when every one will receive according to his works. You may be surprised that at this season the Church directs our thoughts to the second coming of Jesus Christ, when it should seem we ought to be preparing for His first coming; that she speaks to us of the majesty of the coming of the Supreme Judge, when we ought to be thinking of the extreme poverty and the unspeakable humiliations of the divine Babe. Yet, my friends, nothing is more fitting.

The thought of the Last Judgment should fill us with a salutary fear, lead us to enter into our consciences, to examine them diligently, and to cast out sin from them, if unfortunately they are conscious of its presence. And is not this the best possible way to prepare ourselves to celebrate holily the first coming of Christ?

Again, the first coming of Jesus Christ, so humble and to all appearance so despicable, may be for many a rock of scandal; the grandeur and the majesty of His second coming, as Judge of the living and the dead, will remove this scandal and will make us recognize in the Babe, whom in a few days we shall adore on His bed of straw, the Man-God and the Son of the Eternal and the Almighty. But we must comment on the words of the Gospel just read.

“Jesus said to His disciples: There shall be signs in the sun and in the moon and in the stars, and upon the earth distress of nations, by reason of the confusion of the roaring of the sea and of the waves; men withering away for fear and expectation of what shall come upon the world. For the powers of heaven shall be moved.”

Properly to understand these words it is necessary to go back a little and learn the occasion that suggested them and the circumstances in which they were uttered.

The days when Jesus Christ was to accomplish His passion were near at hand, or rather it was the vigil of His passion, since these words were spoken the Monday or Tuesday before His death. As He had referred to the destruction of the Temple and to the judgment to come, the apostles said to Him: “Tell us when will these things take place,” namely, the destruction of the Temple and of the city. “And what will be the sign of Thy coming and of the end of the world?” The apostles put two questions to Jesus and He replied separately to each. He spoke first of the destruction of the Temple and the ruin of the city, and then went on to His second coming and the signs that would precede it. Three Evangelists, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, give more or less at length the words of Our Lord. The Church in the Gospel of this Sunday gives us the answer which Jesus Christ made to the apostles concerning the Last Judgment and the signs which should usher it in.

Before beginning the explanation of the Gospel allow me to make a remark which may be useful.

There have been, and there are still, those who curiously inquire as to when the end of the world will come. Such inquiries are useless and dangerous, and the Church forbids us to make forecasts as to the time when this will take place. Jesus Christ Himself said that no one knows that day, not even the angels, and, He added, “neither does the Son of man, who is speaking to you.” Certainly Jesus Christ knew the day, since He designated the signs of its approach; but He wished His hearers to understand that He did not know it as man, and that, if He did know it, He could not and would not reveal it.

However, if I may express an opinion, it seems clear to me that the end of the world is very far off. If God took more than forty centuries to prepare for the establishment of the kingdom of Jesus Christ or the Church, it seems to me reasonable that this kingdom should last much longer than that. Of the fifteen hundred million men who live on the earth, not three hundred millions have entered into the Church; and is it credible that so small a number of men should be the fruit of so lavish a redemption? Jesus Christ is and must be the King of the universe; His kingdom should be not only universal, but in a certain sense pacific; and we are still very far from the realization of this universal and pacific kingdom of Jesus Christ; and moreover the children of Israel, who before the end of the world must return to Jesus Christ, have to this day shown themselves to be obstinate in their unbelief. I may, then, say with Saint Paul, let none of us be troubled “as if the day of the Lord were at hand.” In all likelihood some decades of centuries will yet go by before the dawning of that great day. And now having said this much we shall go on to explain the Gospel.

Jesus Christ speaks of the fearful signs that will precede the Day of Judgment; of signs in the ran, in the moon, in the stars, and on the sea. What shall these signs be? Jeras Christ does not go into particulars, but He gives us clearly to understand that they will be terrifying beyond all power of words to express. It is well to remember that the prophets, when they foretell great misfortunes or startling events, use these same strong and emphatic forms of expression, so familiar to the Oriental mind. Thus the prophet Joel in foretelling the miracle of Pentecost and the establishment of the Church, uses these words: “In the last days…I shall show wonders in the heaven above, and signs on the earth beneath; blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood.” Now we know that on the day of Pentecost there were no columns of smoke, nor was the sun darkened, nor the moon turned into blood. This language was used simply to give an idea of the stupendous events of Pentecost; it was a form of speech such as we sometimes employ to express what is startling or unusual, as when we say the earth trembled, the heavens seemed to fall, and the like. Our Saviour employs similar language in speaking of the final catastrophe; and it may be that in using a form of speech common to the Hebrews and accommodating Himself to their usage, He did not intend to say in the strict sense that the sun and the moon would he darkened, or that the stars would wander out of their courses, or that the sea would be violently upheaved; but only to point out in a general way, without going into particulars, the extraordinary and fear-inspiring phenomena which would take place at that time. Still there is no doubt that the heavens and the earth will by the most formidable phenomena and events announce and usher in that great day, which will he pre-eminently the Day of the Lord.

And why should there be so tremendous a display of the forces of nature? To show forth the greatness of Him who is to come and the majesty of the Last Judgment, and, as I believe, to frighten the sinners who will then be living on the earth, and to obtain their conversion. Yes, those dreadful quakings of the earth, those disturbances in the atmosphere and in the heavens, those inrushings of the sea upon the land, those alarming phenomena, filling all peoples with dread and dismay, will be as the voice of God calling them to repentance, and, I have no doubt, many will be converted in that supreme hour. The chastisements of God upon the earth have ever been and will continue to be until the end of time the witnesses of His mercy to man.

And what will happen to men then living? “They will wither away with fear and expectation of what shall come upon the world.” They will wither away from fear, that is, they will he seized with an agony of terror and dismay and they will be as men dead at the sight of the universal dissolution of all things and at the coming of the divine Judge. We, my friends, shall not see that fearful day, we shall not witness that awful catastrophe; because we shall be sleeping in the tomb, or rather reduced to the dust from which we came; but our souls, wherever they are, will he conscious of it, and if saved, they will feel secure, but if unfortunately lost, they will be stricken with terror. We have the privilege now of reading in Sacred Scripture and of hearing in advance what will happen upon the earth before the general judgment; let us then reap profit from it, let us rouse ourselves from the sleep of sin, let us judge ourselves now, as the Apostle bids us, and we shall not be judged then, nor shall we dread the horrors of that day. And it is doubtless for this reason that Jesus Christ wished to foretell and briefly describe the sorrowful events that will usher in the supreme judgment; He wishes us to fear it now, that we may escape its terrors then.

Having rapidly touched upon the commotions in the heavens and upon the earth which will precede the end of all things, and upon the terror with which all men will be filled and fade away, Jesus Christ goes on to speak of that which will be of all terrors the greatest, namely, the appearance of the divine Judge. The Son of God in His first coming, so humble and so lowly, sent before Him the patriarchs and prophets, and especially John Baptist, to prepare the way before Him by prayer and exhortation, and He appeared upon the earth at midnight, and, as Saint Ignatius Martyr says, unknown to all and in the most profound silence; but in His second coming He will appear in all the majesty that belongs to Him as the Son of the eternal God. The earth will tremble and reel at His passing; He will not beseech, He will command; at His side will walk not mercy, but justice; He will come as a Judge and not as a Saviour; and the unrivaled splendor of this second coming will be but a just compensation for the lowliness of His first.

Therefore does the Evangelist say: “Then they shall see the Son of man coming in a cloud with great power and majesty.” As in the great demonstrations of this world the king comes last and all eyes are fixed on him, so in this sublime spectacle Jesus Christ, the King of earth and heaven, will be seen coming last after the multitudes of angels and saints. The Son of man, the man by excellence, the Man-God, will come in a cloud. The language is picturesque to signify His power and greatness and to show that He is above all creatures and superior to men and angels. Still it should not be thought that He will really sit upon a cloud or that He needs any such adventitious support or any material aid to give an added majesty to His adorable person. Such language is used for the benefit of us poor creatures of sense, because without figurative language we could not rise above our material surroundings and realize to ourselves somewhat of His divine greatness. It is a matter worthy of note that all the great manifestations of God have been made through clouds: God spoke to Moses from a cloud; a cloud filled the Temple of Solomon; a cloud appeared above Jesus on Thabor, and a cloud received Him out of the sight of the apostles when He went up to heaven, and it is clear that in all these instances visible clouds are meant.

In that most solemn judgment Jesus Christ will have no need of a throne, or of questions, or of answers, or of books, or even of time; all will be done in a lightning’s flash, in the twinkling of an eye, as Saint Paul says; the consciences of all will be laid bare in the infinite light of His presence and each will receive according to his due, as I shall have occasion elsewhere to explain more fully.

Here Our Lord, turning to His beloved apostles and disciples, addresses them as if they were present at the general judgment, as, in fact, they will be, saying: “When these things begin to come to pass, look up and lift up your heads;” that is, rejoice and be glad. Others will be frightened and tremble, awaiting the irrevocable sentence, but you will not be dismayed; confidently you will lift up your eyes and gaze upon the sovereign Judge. And why? “Because your redemption will be at hand.” But how is this, O Lord? Was not their redemption wrought out while they lived on this earth? Yes, here the seed is sown, there the harvest is reaped; in the days of this mortal life grace is given, in the Last Judgment grace will flower and bear fruit and give eternal glory. Until that day the soul, if just, will be happy with God; but the body will lie in the grave, or will be reduced to dust and decomposed into its constituent elements. At the very instant at which the supreme Judge appears, all the bodies of the dead will rise and be united to their souls, and thus will be completed the work of their sanctification or redemption, for the soul alone is not the whole man, and he will be perfect only then, when he will have again his body remade and glorious.

Jesus Christ had said explicitly what signs would go before the dawning of the last day; but he went further and drove home this truth with a similitude, which, according to His wont, He took from the common things of life that lay under the eyes of all. As we have said, Jesus Christ spoke these words shortly before the Pasch, in the month of March and in Palestine; during that month the earth is covered with leaves and flowers, and I believe that while Jesus was speaking to the apostles, He was looking upon the green trees, and among them the fig-tree and hence he said: “The fig-tree and all the trees; when they now shoot forth their fruit, you know that the summer is nigh.” It was as if He said: “When you see the buds swell and the trees put forth their tender leaves, you can safely say: The summer is here; so also, when you see the signs which I have enumerated, you can confidently say: The judgment is at hand.”

But you will say: None of those who listened to Jesus Christ could possibly see those signs; why then did He speak thus to them? Because He spoke by them and through them to all future believers, as He has done in many other places in the Gospels.

The Gospel closes with these two sentences: “Amen, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” Never, I believe, did there or could there come from the lips of man words more straightforward and daring than these. Consider well the words He uses: In truth I say, which is the strongest possible form of asseveration. Consider also the unequaled emphasis of the succeeding words: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.” No one could possibly make so solemn an affirmation unless he were either insane or fully conscious of his own inerrancy. No one has ever dared or ever will dare to say that Jesus was insane, He who has changed the face of the world, who gathers up into Himself the past and the future, and who is the center from which radiates all civilization and all progress. He was therefore fully conscious of the import of what He said, and fully conscious of His divinity, for only a God could utter words such as these, the like of which had never been heard before: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.”

The future soon verified His words in part, and this may be taken as an absolute guarantee that the others will also be verified. Jesus Christ, as I have said, foretold two events in this chapter, namely, the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world; the first event was literally fulfilled five and thirty years after the prediction, and to this the whole world is a witness; who, then, can doubt that the second event will also be fulfilled just as Jesus Christ foretold?

Some may find it difficult to understand these words of Our Lord: “Amen, I say to you, this generation shall not pass away till all things be fulfilled,” from which it would seem that the generation of men living at the time of Christ would witness the end of the world, which is manifestly false.

But the difficulty is easily solved. The phrase, “This generation shall not pass away,” may be understood of the destruction of Jerusalem, and indeed there were many living at the time of Christ who witnessed that fearful catastrophe. But if this interpretation does not seem wholly conformable to the strict sense of the words of Christ, we may give another, which is more common and removes all doubt. “This generation shall not pass away,” that is, these descendants of Abraham, this Jewish nation, shall not cease to exist until Jerusalem is destroyed and the end of the world is come; and it is a singular and solitary fact in the history of all peoples, that this Jewish nation, scattered over the face of the earth, remains to this day and will continue to remain, a distinct people in the midst of all other peoples, as an abiding and visible proof that not a syllable of Christ’s words shall be unfulfilled.

And now let us state briefly what has been thus far said and try to draw from it some thoughts for our spiritual benefit.

Jesus Christ foretells the end of time and the Last Judgment, and He points out the awe-inspiring events that will precede it. The general judgment will but confirm the particular judgment which awaits each of us at our death and which will soon come. We shall have nothing to fear from that great judgment if we are among the number of the just; nay, its coming will fill us with joy, it will complete our redemption, and restore to us our bodies full of immortal life and vigorous with eternal youth. Let us, then, strive with all our strength to be found on that day among the elect, and we shall be among them if we cast out sin from our hearts and live in the friendship of God. Jesus Christ has said: “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away.”