The Sacrifice of the Now
We live in the most exciting, cataclysmic time in human history. This is a time that urgently requires our total “yes” to God by uniting our lives to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Between Christ’s crucifixion and his second coming lies our “now.” We have this present moment to offer worship and sacrifice to God. Will we use it?
It is important to understand the events that Jesus is describing in this Sunday’s Gospel. For a more detailed (but still short) description, I highly recommend Dr. Mary Healy’s book on the Gospel of Mark from the Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture.
The darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars, and the shaking of the heavens refer to three inextricable events at once: the crucifixion of Jesus, the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, and the coming of the Son of Man for the final judgment. Modern Christians usually read the apocalyptic descriptions in scripture and only focus on events somewhere in the future. To understand Jesus’ words and our place in salvation history, we need to also apply these words to the crucifixion and the destruction of the temple.
The temple and its sacrifices were called for by God, and Jesus himself loved the temple and wept over its impending destruction. These sacrifices were instituted for a time to give God’s people a way of worshiping him, thanking him, and atoning for their sins. Though they were imperfect, and often abused, they were nonetheless an integral part of God’s plan. God’s presence in the temple in the Holy of Holies made it the center of all creation. The images within the temple – the stars on its curtain, the menorah symbolizing the sun and moon and planets – were not just empty symbols. The temple truly was the center of the universe, which means its destruction truly was a cataclysmic event.
Since Jesus’ body is the new temple, the transition from the old to the new temple was marked by nothing other than the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Through participation in the sacrifice of Christ, we now have the perfect means of worshiping God, thanking him, and atoning for our sins. By our baptism, we became members of the body of Christ. So we, too, are incorporated into this temple and this sacrifice, which is why St. Peter (the first rock) exhorts us: “like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:5).
We therefore find our place in salvation history, in these end times, by uniting ourselves to the sacrifice of Christ in the manner to which he calls us. In that way, we “learn a lesson from the fig tree,” whose leaves at Passover time (the time in which these Gospel events take place), portended the harvest. We prepare ourselves to offer our bodies to God as a “living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1). For every single one of us, the culmination of this sacrifice is the Sunday liturgy, in which our prayers, works, joys, and sufferings are united to Christ’s one true offering in the Eucharist. But what we bring to the Mass, and how we bring it, differs according to our vocations. This is why I love being a priest. Unworthy as I am, the crux of my vocation is to unite the offerings of God’s people to the one saving sacrifice of Christ. This is most evident in the Eucharist, when, in the person of Christ the head, the priest says, “Pray brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the almighty Father.” It’s also true as I pass in and out of the events of people’s lives: praying with them, blessing their homes, being present at baptisms and weddings and funerals, and accompanying them into eternal life.
When we come to Mass, we should be mindful of the sacrifices we bring, and to whom we offer them. Mass is practice for the end times. Jesus comes to us, not in an overt way, but hidden in the Eucharistic species, and he asks us for our offering so that he can unite it to himself and give it to the Father. The work we’ve done, the people we’ve served, the penances we’ve offered, the prayers we’ve said, the sicknesses and sufferings we’ve endured. We should also be mindful of the ways we’ve fallen short, and the imperfections in these sacrifices. The best way to do this is to practice a morning offering and some form of the examen every day. Throughout the week, we should be mindful not only of Christ’s coming in the future, and his presence at Mass, but of his presence in the “eternal now.” Now is the moment that I can offer something to Jesus. I don’t know if the future exists, but I do know what I have now, and I can offer whatever I’m doing to him in this moment.
Of course the prayers, works, and sacrifices we offer will be imperfect. And even if they were perfect, they would never be enough to merit our salvation in and of themselves. But that is why we unite them to Christ’s sacrifice in the Mass: to perfect them and give them salvific merit – both for ourselves and for the rest of the world.
So our “yes” to Christ is urgent, not only for ourselves, but for the world. When Jesus does come for the final judgment (which could literally be any second), he will ask for a harvest from each of us as individuals. Like the Jewish people in Jerusalem in 70 AD, the world has suffered and continues to suffer horribly through war, poverty, violence, sickness, murder, mental illness, and all other manners of human suffering. So we are united to the body of Christ and are called to offer our sacrifices not only for ourselves and our families, but for the whole world. We can and should respond to the problems around us by donating to good causes, voting with our conscience, and defending our faith and moral positions in life and on the internet. But when Christ appears again, he won’t ask us how many problems we solved. He will ask how faithful we were in the moment, when we recognized the signs of the times. He will ask for a sacrifice of prayer and attentiveness to our duties.
In November, as we contemplate the last things – death, judgment, heaven, and hell – let’s ask Jesus how he wants us to participate in his saving sacrifice for the world during these cataclysmic times. Is it by raising a holy family, a little domestic Church, as a sign of God’s love and fidelity in the midst of a tumultuous culture that hates life and authentic human love? Is it by joining religious life and giving yourself wholly as a sacrifice to God as a fulfillment of your baptismal vows? Is it as a priest, the unworthy hinge between Christ’s sacrifice and his people’s? If you are unsure of your vocation, are you making the best use of your short time on earth with daily prayer, growth in virtue, and attentiveness to God’s presence in the moment? Do you truly understand the brief nature of life on earth, or do you put off prayer, discernment, and daily duties? If Jesus came today, would he see that his sacrifice has borne fruit in us, or would we wither up like the fig tree? Will you offer Jesus the sacrifice of the “now”?