During the week I had the pleasure to have a conversation on Scripture with a dear friend. At one point we considered Matthew chapter 24. I do not remember how we got there but as soon as I opened my Bible and started reading, something quite curious happened. I understood for the first time some crucial points. The text was leading my eyes into reading this chapter in a new way. Please understand this subjectively. These insights were new to me. I am sure others read Matthew and got the message the first time around but for this old thick head of mine, everything was falling in place for the first time. I won’t presume to be guided by the Holy Ghost but if something of truth and value is found in the following words, be sure to thank God for it. The mistakes will be mine.
I must have read Matthew 24-25 about a million times. I started reading the Bible when I was six years old or so. I still have a small print pocket Bible that my grandmother brought home one day. I read the first page of Genesis and I was strangely fascinated by 16th century Spanish and the story of creation. Many things flew straight over my head, I was only a six year old after all. Over many decades I learned a lot about that part of the Gospel. I have to thank Fr. Johann Straubinger for the marvelous footnotes to his translation. I was reading Catholic doctrine without even knowing it. So, what you are going to read from this point on is the summation of what I learned over years of reading St. Matthew over and over.
As Jesus came out of the temple and was going away, his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. Then he asked them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’ (Matthew 24:1-2)
The images presented in Scripture are —in my humble opinion— as important as the text. They shed light on the meaning of Scripture and are one of the best ways to approximate the mind of the narrator and how the mind of God guided the story to teach mankind over the centuries. We are invited into a miracle by God. That’s quite an important invitation.
Here we “see” Jesus coming out of Temple. This is not a mere exit. Jesus is going out of the house where God is worshipped. The image is majestic. More so because it is a secret image projected from antiquity so that your eyes can contemplate the Logos (John 1:1) walking from the House of God to the Mount of Olives where he is about to pronounce a discourse that some called “the Olivet discourse” and others will call the little apocalypse of Jesus. As they went their way, the disciples pointed at the enormous stones supporting the hillside. You can see some of them today when visiting the Wailing Wall.
The disciples are amazed at that marvelous sight. Even to this day the wall is an admirable work of engineering that have lasted now more than twenty centuries. But the amazement is short lived. Jesus prophesies that not one stone will be left upon another. His prophecy is pointing at a time far in the future when titanic forces will be unleashed upon a world that has forgotten God and His just Law. That sets the tone of the coming discourse. The stones survived the Roman destruction of the Temple but something even more destructive than Roman legions will visit Jerusalem and the world before Jesus returns in glory. For us in this awful time of confusion, Jesus’ phrase serves as a reminder that the glory of our faith is Him and not the trappings of ecclesiastical architecture, religious art, or the vain accumulation of riches. Place the thought firmly in your mind: nothing will survive the ages to come. The lives of oceans, mountains, empires are nothing.
C. S. Lewis exposed the subject brilliantly in The Weight of Glory when he said:
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”
Relics are fine as long as they remind us of our fragility. Anyone you see walk by is “an immortal horror” that will inhabit Hell forever, or “an everlasting splendor” that will shine in Heaven more than all the stars combined. Unlike the stars, that splendor will never fade.
Remember Jesus’ words: “You see all these, do you not?” Well, all we see is nothing. All the things we value amount to nothing. Mind the souls around you and most of all mind your own soul. Life is short, eternity is long.
When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, “I am the Messiah!” and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines, [pestilences] and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs. (Matthew 24:3-8)
Jesus and the disciples reach the Mount of Olives. From there they have a view of the magnificent Temple and the crowds coming and going. The Mount of Olives is full of … you guessed it: olive trees. Most olive trees are started from rooted cuttings but some varieties can be grafted and reproduced. In ancient times the olive tree represented a long life of justice and wisdom because of its ability to survive and thrive. Jesus is sitting now next to trees that were already alive when David was king. Down the mountain there’s a Temple built by the usurper Hasmonean king, Herod. The temple of Herod is bound to last less, way less than the olive trees of David.
“Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” ask the disciples, anxious to peek into the future. They know Jesus is an extraordinary prophet and they want to know. The part: “your coming and of the end of the age” is the way we translate σῆς παρουσίας καὶ συντελείας τοῦ αἰῶνος [tes parousias kai synteleias tou aionos] and the choice of words in Greek is interesting to say the least. Parousia is basically “presence” and synteleias is something akin to “simmering” or “consummation” — which brings us back to Christ’s words: ὃς οὐ καταλυθήσεται [hos ou katalythesetai] literally: “which will be precipitated” [catalyzed, dissolved thrown down, consumed].
So the parousia is a time of completion and final consumption. This is something St. Peter expressed clearly after many years of meditating on the words of his Master.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved [λυθήσεται, lythesethai] with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed. Since all these things are to be dissolved [λυομένων, lyomenon] in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved [λυθήσονται, lythesontai] and the elements will melt with fire? (2 Peter 3:10-12)
Peter knows that the end of the age is a dangerous time when things will perish and souls can perish as well. The Temple will be destroyed by fire when the Roman legions try to melt the golden ornaments decorating the ceiling and walls of the edifice. “Set ablaze and dissolve” is understood much better now that we know how the order of the Old Testament ended in a macabre symphony of sacrilege, pillage and death as the Mosaic age reached its consummation.
Only the Law survived because it is eternal, the foundation of faith, and so did the retaining wall of the Temple hill. That wall survived for our instruction, to warn us of the consummation of another age still to come. Because “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” He who promised that will not fail to make it happen.
Prepare for the dissolution of the material world but also beware of those who want to cause your dissolution. Do not allow anyone to lead you astray under messianic false pretenses. With this the Antichrist enters the scene of this prophetic statement. He is the pinnacle of the false prophets and his aim will be to steal the flock of Christ by pretending to be Christ. Some prophecies predict that the Antichrist last day will come upon the Mount of Olives. There he will attempt to preach on a clear day with impeccable blue skies but a bolt of lightning will end his career right there. (See Prophecies of Bl. Katherine Ann Emmerich.)
But “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes” as part of simmering of this old world we inhabit. Jesus compares all of it as the beginning of birth pangs as God begins to reshape the world according to His justice. He will rule on Earth as He rules in Heaven and the prayers of millions of His sons and daughters will be finally heard.
The lot of the faithful
‘Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. But anyone who endures to the end will be saved. And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:9-13)
The heat that consumes the age and the material elements has also a counterpart in the persecution of the Church. We have to pass through the fire of persecution and temptation just like Jesus did. Betrayal, hate, and deception will have a chilling effect on everyone’s affections as the world turns into “every man for himself” when cataclysms destroy even the bonds of human charity. Somehow God will provide for His flock to endure those trials. Essential to the salvation of the flock is the witness of Jesus (Revelation 19:10) and his promise of a world redeemed and re-ordered by the power of his sacrifice.
Now, to bring the testimony to all nations requires a continuity. The witness of the Church is eternal and it is tied to Holy Tradition as St. Paul affirms in Galatians 1:6-9.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed!
Jesus is telling us that the completion of the apostolic task of taking the Gospel to every corner of the world has to be completed before the end comes. St. Paul informs the Galatians in no uncertain terms that turning away from the Gospel will bring a curse upon them. Merge both statements and the familiar figure of the great apostasy of the end times takes shape right there. That is a sign of impending doom for the world. Why? Because the faithful Church is like the ten men in Abraham’s bargain.
Then he said, ‘Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.’ He answered, ‘For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.’ And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place. ( cf. Genesis 18:17-19)
St. Jude explains further:
Now I desire to remind you, though you are fully informed, that the Lord, who once for all saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterwards destroyed those who did not believe. (Jude 1:5)
The Church is saved from the world just like Israel was extracted by God’s power from the land of Egypt. The world is also condemned in the same manner that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were condemned when Abraham interceded for the salvation of the just who lived there (i.e. his cousin Lot and his family). Once Lot was removed from Sodom and Gomorrah, God was free to bring destruction on those cities. As Lot escaped (a figure of the Church in the end times escaping the world) his wife fell into unbelief and dared to disobey God’s instructions. Her destruction was instantaneous. (cf. Genesis 19)
In the end times, many in the Church will fall into the Great Apostasy and separate from the flock of Christ. Their contaminated gospel is not “the testimony of Jesus” but the vain witness of mere men. The last obstacle for the emergence of the Last Abomination is thus removed. The flock of Christ will now go “into the wilderness” and God will focus on punishing the impious world. That is the moment when the Abomination appears. Jesus now warns the disciples.
‘So when you see the desolating abomination [or sacrilege] standing in the holy place, as was spoken of by the prophet Daniel (let the reader understand), then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat. Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a sabbath. For at that time there will be great suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be. And if those days had not been cut short, no one would be saved; but for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short. Then if anyone says to you, “Look! Here is the Messiah!” or “There he is!”—do not believe it. For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and produce great signs and omens, to lead astray, if possible, even the elect. Take note, I have told you beforehand. So, if they say to you, “Look! He is in the wilderness”, do not go out. If they say, “Look! He is in the inner rooms”, do not believe it. For as the lightning comes from the east and flashes as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. (Matthew 24:15-28)
Jesus gives the last and more important sign: the appearance of a disgusting abomination standing where it ought not: in the place of God. Our Lord reminds us of the prophet Daniel. Here we find a stunning parenthetical phrase “let the reader understand” that feels like Christ turning his face and speaking through the centuries to us, the readers who will see the abomination arise. He asks us to “understand” to have the intelligence and perspicuity to dive deep into his words. When you or I read this part of the Gospel, Jesus is talking to us personally and —if you ask with a pure heart— he will open the meaning of his warning to you. Think for a moment in that immense privilege. How a humble and loving God addresses His creatures:
[…] then those in Judea must flee to the mountains; someone on the housetop must not go down to take what is in the house; someone in the field must not turn back to get a coat.
The warning mixes the type and the antitype. The type is the invasion of Judea by the Romans during 66 A.D. and 70 A.D. when the legions of Rome devastated the land. There was a false alarm in 66 A.D. when Cestius Gallus surrounded Jerusalem only to return to Rome shortly after. The Christians in Judea knew this was their opportunity to flee and they obediently did. The Jewish nationalists misunderstood the sign, declared victory and stayed.
When Titus Vespasianus returned in 70 A.D. the Jews lost Jerusalem, Judea, and the Temple. That hiatus in between both Roman invasions may represent a short period of peace meant to lead Christians into safety before God unleashes the punishment of this wayward world. St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians gives good advice:
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, ‘There is peace and security’, then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-5)
Meditate carefully on that passage and avoid making the same mistake as the Jewish nationalists of 66 A.D.
The Days of Darkness
‘Immediately after the suffering of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will be shaken. Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see “the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven” with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:29-31)
The tribulation has barely ended when God sends darkness over the whole world. This is reminiscent of the tenth plague of Egypt that comes before the Israelites are redeemed and leave the land of Egypt. (cf. Exodus 10:21-24) Jesus prophesies that his sign will appear in Heaven. That seems to be the last sign before his coming in glory to gather the elect. Now the separation of the goats and sheep is completed. (cf. Matthew 25:31-46) Now “they will see” his power and great glory, they will confirm his Resurrection, they will realize where true salvation is. (cf. More On The Three Days Of Darkness)
Then Jesus’ discourse moves on to how to interpret the signs of the times.
The blooming of the signs
‘From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. (Matthew 24:32-35)
The surviving wailing wall is a sign that this is a prophecy that will take many centuries to fulfill. “This generation” may refer to those in Israel who did not like Jesus to be their Messiah. In Hebrew the word “generation” also can be understood as “blood” or “lineage”, “brood”, or the “present evil social order”. Perhaps the descendants of those who shouted “We have no King but Caesar!” will be present among those who will see Jesus coming with power and great glory. Indeed the Heavens and Earth we know will pass away (cf. Revelation 21:1-3) but the words we are reading in this chapter of Matthew will remain, they are the words of the Logos, One who created all there is by his word.
The unexpected hour
‘But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36-44)
From this part of Jesus’ discourse we know that his coming to the world will be completely unexpected but he gives us a few clues. It is not a sin to meditate in those clues. It is a sin to mislead others with unfounded theories about the Second Coming. Be assured: it will be a surprise! May be not a total surprise but surprising enough so that no one will know exactly when to be prepared. We must be prepared at all times.
The image of the world Jesus presents is one of normality: eating and drinking, courting and marrying. That must have been the case at Noah’s time until one day, on the 17th day of the second month (Iyar) an angel sealed the door of the ark with Noah and his family safely inside. And then it rained. The deluge thus found people doing ordinary things, working, resting, cooking, cleaning, playing, traveling and so on. They did not know their end was at hand.
That is why we have to be good servants of Christ and mind his business as if he was there looking at us. Finally —and I find this a really mysterious part considering the times we are living— Jesus tells us about two servants: one faithful, the other unfaithful.
‘Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other servants their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possessions. But if that wicked servant says to himself, “My master is delayed”, and he begins to beat his fellow-slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 24:45-51)
There is a servant that sticks to his duties. His reward will be great. But there is another servant, perhaps he is the same servant who started being good but now has grown wicked and lazy. This time is the first time I read this passage and the current situation in Rome came vividly into mind. I won’t abound on this because I think we can easily understand. We could infer the good servant belongs to the Church that struggles to remain faithful. The other who “eats and drinks with drunkards” reminds me of the woman riding the beast of Revelation:
Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgement of the great whore who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ So he carried me away in the spirit into a wilderness, and I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. The woman was clothed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her fornication; and on her forehead was written a name, a mystery: ‘Babylon the great, mother of whores and of earth’s abominations.’ And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus. (Revelation 17:1-6)
Here, the abomination appears under a different guise. It is a woman now that has carnal commerce with the kings of the Earth. Fornication is her business. She is ‘at their service’ and she is ‘seated on many waters’. It was the custom of ancient prostitutes to wash themselves between customers by “sitting” on a basin filled with water. In the case of this woman in scarlet, her impurities contaminate the water she uses. The waters are nations, and tribes, and peoples of the Earth who are rendered unclean by the prostitute. It is not hard to surmise that this abomination has something to do with the abomination presented earlier by Jesus.
The picture of the world shown to us is a world saturated by impurity and self-serving kings drunk with power. To put an end to that awfully oppressive situation comes the King of Kings. The wicked servant will be “cut to pieces” and those oppressing the Church will get their comeuppance while the flock of Christ will exult in liberation.