33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time

Preached November 18, 2018; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon

This 33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time could be called ‘End of the World Sunday’, but we want always to remember that of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

We do not know the day or the hour, but the word of God today carries a very important message for us here and now.

We might not be living in the time of ‘unsurpassed distress’ of which the prophet Daniel speaks, but surely we could speak of our times as a time of ‘great distress’. Sad, tragic, and disturbing events seem to assail us ever more frequently, on every level, while human leadership on every level seems rife with corruption and at a loss for a response; it seems as though the very powers of heaven were shaken. We should know, however, that any time of distress is also a time of grace precisely because God in his mercy offers us the gift of his grace in accordance with the greatness of our needs; the more he allows us to be put the test, the more he provides us with his grace to pass through the trial as gold purified by fire. We must, however, ask for those graces in prayer and we would do well to ask for them through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Now let me speak briefly about one recent tragic event, the Camp Fire in Butte County, California, the deadliest in California history, which has destroyed the entire town of Paradise, a town which was once about equal in population to all of Wasco County; now they are all homeless. As we offer our prayers both for the deceased and for the survivors, the reality of the event boggles the mind and imagination. Our hearts go out especially to the survivors who have suffered such a loss and now look forward with such uncertainty to the future.

Like so many current events we are left asking, “What is the meaning of all this?”

Now, if God speaks to us through such events, and I think he does, and though we must be careful in reading his meaning, one message that should come through is one that Jesus himself gave in response to similar tragedies: Do you think they were greater sinners than everyone else? Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else? I will tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did. (cf. Lk 13:2-5) In other words, all these events remind us that this world in its current form is passing and they serve as a call to examine our own conscience before God, to repent, to seek his mercy, and to amend our life.

Paradise lost! The name may be accidental, but just say the words about what just took place and it is rather startling. Paradise lost. A quick internet search reveals that there are 27 places in the United States that are named “Paradise”, only one of them has been lost, Paradise, California.

Now, how many people in the history of California came there looking not for a town named “Paradise”, but for what they thought would be the reality of paradise? In some ways the State of California, my native State by the way, embodies the ever-elusive dream of some sort of paradise on earth.

In the extreme we can think of all the young men and young women who have made the trek to Hollywood, pursuing the vain hope of making it big in the movies, of becoming the next star or starlet, and who ended in bitterness, disappointment, and disillusion, with broken lives. Yet we can also think of those privileged few who did make the big time, like Marilyn Monroe, but who instead of finding happiness, found broken marriages, depression, and suicide.

That is the illusion of the paradise of Hollywood, but the paradise of Silicon Valley is no less deceptive.

Paradise, California, I am sure that while it was a pleasant enough place to live, it had no pretensions to be a real paradise; further I suppose the town has been relatively innocent by today’s standards. But its destruction makes us think about how the State of California has so often promised the illusion of happiness that has been cruelly destroyed. Still, here in Oregon, we must not think that we are any better.

If we look at current events in the light of the word of God, we can find meaning in them, very often a sobering meaning, but finally we should not let ourselves become fixated by current events. They can be distressing and confusing, but very often they are little more than the wavelets on the Columbia River on a windy day. What is of much greater importance – and often harder to discern – is the actual current of the river underneath.

As men and women of faith in Jesus Christ, we must not pursue false paradises here on earth, false promises of happiness, but we must swim against the current like spiritual salmon, in order to return to our origin, the God who created us and from whom we have separated ourselves by sin.

So many people moved to California seeking a better life and some sort of happiness; some found what they were looking for; some found what they were looking for and discovered that it was not what they really wanted. Many people also come to the United States, look for happiness, looking for a better life. That is surely a legitimate desire.

Truly, though, a better life is not found in moving our location. Living well means first and foremost living rightly, living rightly in the eyes of God. We are called to live rightly wherever we are and we are given the grace to do just that wherever we are.

That is precisely what the Lord tells us through the prophet Micah: You have been told, O man, what is good and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 5:8)

However distressing the events may be around us, we need to hold fast to the words of Jesus, the Son of God, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

 You see, in the last analysis it is not a matter of the end of the world, but the end of this world in its present form.

So often we hear, by way of justification, excuse, or explanation, that everything God makes is perfect. Actually, that is evidently false. God made an imperfect world subject to decay and death as a preparation for a perfect world. We need to suffer the imperfect world in order to receive the perfect as a gift from God; we need to suffer the imperfect world in order to receive from God the gift of the true paradise.

So it is that this heaven and this earth will pass away, much as our body will pass away, because the whole heaven and earth must follow Jesus Christ, through the Cross to the Resurrection. There with the world transformed we await a new heaven and a new earth in which justice dwells (2 Pe 3:13), in which all things will be made right, in which all wounds will be healed, and in which all things will be made new (Rev 21:1,5). Now, we must not be fixated by current events, but instead must hold fast to the words of Jesus Christ, the words of eternal life.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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