Sunday, November 6, 2011

We do "not grieve like rest who have no hope"

We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. Indeed, we tell you this, on the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will surely not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, console one another with these words (1 Thess 4:13-18)
It is very likely that St. Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians was the first written "book" of the New Testament. The only other composition vying for this distinction is Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. First Thessalonians was likely written around AD 50 and, as it usually stated in the scholarly literature, prior to AD 52. I mention this only because today's second reading encapsulates the apostle's reason for writing to the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki. The earliest Christians believed that the parousia (i.e., Christ's return in glory) was imminent, many believing that it would happen in their lifetime. Despite this, it does not appear that Paul, or anyone who traveled with him, or was sent forth by him, went all Harold Camping (or Chuck Smith, founder of Calvary Chapel, who used to predict the imminence of the end-of-the-world with regularity) on the early Church, but believed and taught the Lord's return was imminent, that is, He could return at any time. So, be ready. Two millenia on, this how we are still to live, which is still why we should not be of the world, even though we are to be present and active within it, seeking in all our endeavors to usher in God's kingdom. After all, we still believe and confess that Jesus Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." Should the Lord not return in glory during our lifetime, the end of time for each of us is death, which this month of November bids us to recall; momento mori. So, like the wise virgins, we are to keep our lamps trimmed and burning.

The Last Judgment Tympanum at Notre Dame de Paris

The pastoral issue that arose for St. Paul with regard to the Thessalonians was that members of their Church were dying and the Lord had not returned. This obviously shook their faith in Christ. Precisely because Paul and his co-workers had not made reckless predictions about when the Lord would return, even though, they taught the imminence of His return, the apostle could take this opportunity to enhance their understanding of Christ's resurrection and to strengthen their faith. He explains that those who have died are not extinguished, they have not ceased to exist, but are "asleep." When the Lord returns, "with the voice of an archangel and the trumpet of God" the dead will be called forth from their graves. (This is one of those New Testament passages that give rise to our compliant, "You're making enough racket to raise the dead.") Once the dead have been raised, those saints alive when the Lord returns, along with the faithful dead, will be gathered in as well and together "we shall always be with the Lord." With these words we are to "console on another." These words should also cause us to challenge and provoke one another to live each day, each moment, in the awareness of our destiny in order that we fulfill it.

Of course, I can't comment on this passage without noting that it is the basis for the belief of many Evangelical Protestants in the so-called Rapture, that event that Harold Camping, along with Chuck Smith, has given up on predicting. It is very specious to develop an entire doctrine, one unknown to the Tradition, on the basis of one verse of Scripture, especially when it is at odds with the overall message the apostle is seeking to convey, both in the passage under consideration and in both Paul's letters to the Christians of ancient Thessaloniki. In the second chapter of his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, the apostles writes:
We ask you, brothers, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our assembling with him,a not to be shaken out of your minds suddenly, or to be alarmed either by a “spirit,” or by an oral statement, or by a letter allegedly from us to the effect that the day of the Lord is at hand. Let no one deceive you in any way (2 Thess. 2:1-5)
We can say that Paul is writing speculatively and figuratively about what will happen to those who are still alive when the Lord returns and not alluding to some fully developed kind of so-called "premillennial dispensationalism." One of the best books I have ever read on the parousia, precisely because it is provocative, challenging our lazy assumptions, is Morris West's novel The Clowns of God.

During this month when we remember and pray for our beloved dead, we do not grieve like those who have no hope because Jesus Christ is our hope.

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