A change that affects our daily routine is
rarely easy to incorporate into our lives. A change that affects our faith
brings an even deeper dimension of difficulty.
I was ordained a priest on Dec. 16, 1964, so I've
never functioned without the changes and reforms of the Second Vatican
Council being an essential part of my ministry. As difficult at times as
that's been, integrating the Council's changes into our faith life is
easy compared to some of the changes our ancestors had to face.
I could always demonstrate from Scripture and
early Church history that those changes in the 1960s were simply a return to
Jesus' original plan for those who choose to imitate Him. The bishops were
just calling us to go back to the models and practice of faith that had
motivated that itinerant Galilean preacher. They could always fall back on a
thing called precedent.
But first-century Christians experienced two
changes for which there was no precedent. They first shifted from being a
Jewish church to a Gentile church. But then, even more disturbingly, they
had to replace their belief that the risen Jesus would triumphantly return
in their lifetime with a belief that His Parousia would take place only
after they died.
Sunday's second reading (I Thes 4: 13-18) is
one of the earliest expressions of belief in Jesus' immanent return. The
Gospel (Mt 25: 1-13) is one of the latest. Matthew appears to be the last
evangelist to believe Jesus would come back before he died.
As a child, I asked my religion teacher,
"What happens to those still alive when Jesus returns?" The
Thessalonians asked Paul the opposite question. They originally seemed to
believe no one would die before Jesus came back, so they wanted to know,
"What happens if you die before that eventful day?"
Do the dead miss out on the reward handed out
at the Parousia, or do they just have to go to the end of the line when the
distribution takes place?
Paul assures his community that neither will
happen. "For if we believe," he writes, "that Jesus died and
rose, God will bring forth with Him from the dead those also who have fallen
asleep believing in Him....We who live, who survive until His coming, will
in no way have an advantage over those who have fallen asleep."
Had Paul written to the Thessalonians 50 years
later, he would have to change parts of his theology. Few at that point
believed Jesus' Parousia was just around the corner.
Writing in the late 70s, Matthew still believes
Jesus will return soon. He simply wants to make certain his readers have
enough "oil" in their lamps to welcome the bridegroom's arrival.
His message is clear: "Keep your eyes open, for you know not the day or
Within a few years, Christians began to change
their belief and started to reflect on the implications of Jesus' never
coming back in their lifetime. It was a true "leap of faith." With
no precedent for their theology, they were opening new doors of faith.
As disturbing as this change was, the author of
the first reading provides us with a rock of stability (Wis 6: 12-16). In
its biblical context, "wisdom" refers to one's ability to
discover patterns in God's behavior by carefully observing creation. As
the Wisdom author states, only those who take creation seriously will
perceive and find wisdom.
Perhaps the only way we'll be able to accept
those changes in our faith that have no precedent is to look carefully at
how God is working through the people, things and situations we experience
every day in our lives. In certain circumstances, we could be the people who
are setting the precedents on which others will later fall back.