Tuesday, November 22, 2011

"We are not of the night or of darkness"

As I prepare to read through the second half of Revelation with the aid of Joseph Mangina's insightful commentary, I was struck this morning by the reading for Morning Prayer, which is from St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians. Again, it is either this letter or the apostle's First Letter to the Corinthians that was first book of the New Testament to be written. It seems that the immediate occasion of this first letter to the ancient Church of Thessaloniki was a disturbance caused by some of the early believers dying. This was disturbing to the Church because it was the expectation of the earliest Christians that Christ's return was imminent. This was certainly Paul's expectation, too. Apparently, many were convinced that the Lord would return before any of the saints died, which understanding seems to be an element of false, that is, non-apostolic, teaching.

As might be expected, this disturbance created a further opportunity for false teachers to whip people into a frenzy. In this letter Paul takes on these false teachers in a direct way. At the beginning of the fifth chapter of 1 Thessalonians the apostle reminds his sisters and brothers of what they already know and patiently works out the implications of their knowledge:

Concerning times and seasons, brothers, you have no need for anything to be written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night. When people are saying, “Peace and security,” then sudden disaster comes upon them, like labor pains upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers, are not in darkness, for that day to overtake you like a thief. For all of you are children of the light and children of the day. We are not of the night or of darkness (1 Thess. 5:1-5)
What is significant about this passage is that Paul insists that the "children of light," even though they do not know exactly when the Lord will return, will not be caught off guard because, like the five wise virgins from Jesus' parable (Matt 25:1-13), they are always ready. Further, he notes that just like a pregnant woman suddenly goes into labor, or a thief who relies on the element of surprise for his thieving, it is impossible for anyone to know exactly when Jesus will return in glory.

There is the probably apocryphal story of St. Francis of Assisi at work in a garden when one of the friars asked him what he would do if the Lord returned at that exact moment, to which Francis replied, "I'd keep tending the garden." Historically accurate or not, this is the response of a true child of the light, exactly how the apostle is trying to get the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki to view the matter and how we, some 2,000 years later, are to approach this great mystery. All of this seems fitting in a year when so much false teaching about Jesus' return has created a lot of stir, just like the false teachers who frequented the ancient Christian communities of Asia Minor.

I'll end with the Church's prayer for this Thirty-fourth Tuesday of Ordinary Time:

Lord Jesus Christ,
true light of the world,
you guide all mankind to salvation.
Give us the courage, strength and grace
to build a world of justice and peace,
ready for the coming of that kingdom.

You live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

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