As autumn slowly gives way to winter, there is a touch of sadness in the air, despite the beauty here in the northern hemisphere where we revel in the colorful kaleidoscope of changing and falling leaves. It is a wistful and even sorrowful moment, as the Church year itself draws to a close. November is traditionally the month of remembrance, during which we call to mind our loved ones who have died but especially those who sacrificed their lives to defend the life and liberty of their fellow citizens.
Calamitous events such as the heart-breaking disaster at the Astroworld Concert in Houston on Friday added to the grief of many families. But I was also deeply touched by the sacrifice made by those attempting to protect and assist others – Danish Baig, who threw himself over the body of his fiancée to shield her, and Jacob (“Jake”) Jurinek, the nephew of a friend, who escaped the mayhem only to return to try to rescue others. The splendor of their sacrifice, like that of others and the members of the armed forces we honor this week, cannot diminish the sorrow felt by friends and family. But that will, with God’s grace, transform one day into grateful and even joyful remembrance. “Greater love has no one than to lay down their lives for their friends” [John 15:13].
If we listen carefully, today’s readings are not so much about calamity but of ultimate triumph.
The first reading introduces us to Michael the Archangel, not only the protector of Israel but also the angel of judgment, which is why he is usually pictured holding a set of scales. Here, in the Book of Daniel, he is the Great Prince — one of the seven great angels who stand in the presence of God. His promise is worth repeating: “…the wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness shall be like the stars forever” [Dan 12:3].
Today’s responsorial psalm underscores the hope that drives our faith in the justice and truth God expects of those who believe and follow the path laid out for us:
I set the Lord ever before me;
With God at my right hand I shall not be disturbed.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to the nether world
nor let your faithful one undergo corruption.
You show me the path of life,
fullness of joy in your presence,
delights in your right hand forevermore [Ps 16:5-11].
The Epistle to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, extols the mission of Jesus, the great king and high priest of the world to come, where he has taken his place forever at the right hand of God. What is there to fear? When Christ appears in glory, we are reminded, he will triumph over the forces of sin and evil. Such as our hope, and our hope is to be counted among those at his right hand.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus advises his listeners to learn a lesson from the fig tree – not because its leaves are falling as winter approaches, but because in the springtime, its sap rises and its generous leaves begin to sprout. It is a harbinger of fulfilment, not disaster. The scary omens mentioned early in the reading are not merely signs of approaching doom, but the great burgeoning of life promised in the Book of Revelation following all the turmoil: “Behold I make all things new” [Rev 21:4]. Here again, flourishing trees are taken as a sign of the new and everlasting life granted by the Lamb of God, trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations [Rev 21:2]. St. Augustine, in his sermon on the end times, draws on Psalm 95: “All the trees of the forest shall exult before the face of the Lord, for he has come, and he will come again” [Discourse on the Psalms, 95].
Our grief and sorrow at the loss of our loved ones in this unparalleled time of disease, civil discord, and violence is not the final verdict. We shall be united with them forever in that realm of justice and truth where love shall eternally prevail. That is today’s message of hope.
Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.