12 November 2010

Where the body is, there is death

St. Josaphat
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Ss Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Around the highways and streets of the US, you will occasionally see a bumper-sticker that reads: “CAUTION: In case of Rapture, this car will be empty!” Most cradle Catholics have never heard of the Rapture. Those of us who are converts from Protestantism know the term all too well. The Rapture is an end-times event where those who are “saved” will be jerked into heaven, leaving behind empty cars, offices, airplanes, and churches. This event is a sign that the God's judgment on the world has begun and those remaining must endure the Tribulation—the reign of the Beast, the anti-Christ, and the Battle of Armageddon. Exactly how all of these events play out—which comes first, who must suffer what—is the subject of intense debate among believers in the Rapture. Whole Protestant denominations have been founded on one or another interpretation of these prophesied events. Catholics have been more or less spared all this speculation b/c the Church has always taught that events described in the Book of Revelation are best understood as a form of Jewish literary apocalypticism used by John to narrate historical events that took place in the first century of the Church. John used the highly symbolic images of Daniel, Ezekiel, and others to encrypt the history of Rome's persecutions of the early Church in order to protect and encourage Christians. If all of this is true, how do we understand this morning's gospel? Jesus seems to be saying that when judgment day arrives, some will be taken and others will be left behind. Is he describing the Rapture?

Yes and no. Yes, he is certainly describing events that correspond to what some believe to be the Rapture. But he is not describing a one-time event that occurs at the end of the world. What Jesus is describing is the one event that happens to us all—death. We will all die and face judgment. Being prepared for that inevitable event is the point of Jesus' teaching. Worrying about End Time disasters and fanciful apocalyptic mysteries is pointless. The purpose—the only reason—for living a Christian life is to become more and more like Christ. At the moment of death, the moment of judgment, God will recognize those who have embodied the spirit of Christ and welcome them to His kingdom. Or He will honor the free choice of some to reject His love and allow them an eternity set apart from His presence. This process of death and judgment happens quite literally thousands of times a day. Every time someone dies. Speculation about some future end-time snatching of believers from their daily lives misses the whole thrust of Jesus' teaching here. Even the disciples seem to miss the point. They want to know where these events will take place. What does Jesus say? “Where the body is, there also the vultures will gather.” And where is that exactly? Jerusalem? Rome? Peoria? In so far as people living in these cities die everyday, yes. But death comes to us all regardless of where we live. Wherever there is a body, death will come and judgment follows; therefore, Jesus urges us: be ready, always ready to account for your life in Christ, being sure that you have lived as close to him as your gifts allow.

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  1. I've never known what Catholic teaching correlated to the Protestant take on rapture. Having both a southern and a northern Protestant background, I have noticed the absence of reference to the rapture as a Catholic - but not what the Catholic interpretation of Revelation really is. Interesting... Thanks, Father Philip. Also, this cut to the chase for me in another area. "The only reason for living a Christian life is to become more and more like Christ." And so, thanks, for that re-grounding, too. God bless, aspiring...

  2. templariidvm11:20 AM

    For some reason, your homily really spoke to me, though it was nothing "brand new" for me.
    And thanks for your blog!
    Prayers for you!

  3. Hi Fr Philip,

    For the sake of clarity, may I point out that not all protestant/reformed denominations put any stock in the rapture. The more 'mainstream' ones (Angican, Lutheran, Methodist etc.) wouldn't accord it any place in their doctrinal teaching as far as I'm aware (though undoubtedly there are individual members of those denominations who do).

    As an aside: the interpretation of Revelation that I was taught in my Anglican seminary was much as you outlined it in your post - perhaps not surprising, as our teacher was a Dominican colleague of yours (you probably know him -Fr Wilfred Harrington)!
    God bless.