I heard a story, not so long ago, of a group of very eager and enthusiastic participants at a Church conference on strategies for spreading the Gospel. One of them asked an expert on evangelization what was the most effective evangelical strategy today, he gave a disconcerting answer. He said that “empirical research showed the answer is martyrdom.” After a long pause, one of the participants at the conference asked, “Can you tell us what the second most effective strategy might be?”
It’s not surprising that we look for an easier answer when the first answer may involve dying for our faith. We play down a central teaching of Christianity, which is the need to back up our words with actions – this is what Jesus means when He tells us to take up His cross and follow Him. He also tells His disciples that He and they will have to suffer for their faith. Such persecution will be an opportunity for them to bear witness to their faith. God will give them an eloquent defense. They may be betrayed by their family and friends, and some will be put to death. But Jesus tells us not to be frightened but rather to have confidence, because in the end, “Your endurance will win you your lives.”
In the history of the Church, Christians have drawn strength from these words of Jesus. From St. Stephen onwards, men and women have given the witness of their lives as martyrs. Such persecution continues today. A little-publicized fact at the moment is that Christians are persecuted more than the followers of any other religious faith throughout the world. Innumerable Christian communities are on the defensive against rampant forms of intolerance. In many countries around the world, especially in parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Christians are not free to worship without harassment. Currently, about 200 million Christians are now under threat.
It takes great courage to witness to the faith in such countries. But even in countries where Christianity is not persecuted, there are opportunities to give witness when Gospel values are questioned. It may be on questions of marriage, respect for life, or justice and peace, but it takes courage to take a stand against the prevailing consensus.
In today’s first reading from the prophet Malachi, we hear these words: “Lo, the day is coming” (Mal 3:19). The day that the prophet speaks of is no ordinary day, but rather, the Last Day, the day at the end of time when Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. It is this final day that the Church asks us to direct our gaze toward each year as we reach the conclusion of the Church’s liturgical year.
In addition to the readings that the Church offers to us for our reflection during this time, the world around us, especially during these autumn days, offers us a visual aid to assist us in pondering this reality. The days are growing shorter with less sunlight, pointing to that last day when “the sun will be darkened” (Mt 24:49). Throughout our country, we know that fields are being harvested, evoking the image of the harvest at the end of time where the faithful will be separated from the wicked and welcomed into eternal light.
The end of time is a reminder that what is present here on earth is only temporary, “but according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet 3:13). To many, this is a frightening prospect as it means a transition to something largely unknown. To others, especially those who find this life a burden, it is a change to look forward with great joy to the promise of this new life in Heaven. For those who fear this final day, there is the desire that it be delayed as long as possible. For those who eagerly anticipate it, it cannot come soon enough. In either case, the Lord directs that we should “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Mt 25:13).
In his Second letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul confronts a situation in which the people expect the Lord to return soon. As a result, many have abandoned their responsibilities that pertain to this present life. These duties seemed unnecessary, given the fact that they would soon witness the return of the Lord. Saint Paul reprimands them for this behavior because they are denying a fundamental part of God’s plan, which calls man to work and “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28). He even uses himself as a model of one who worked “in toil and drudgery, night and day” (2 Thes. 3:8), and urged others to “work quietly” (2 Thes. 3:12), according to their state in life. Honest work done faithfully each day, then, is a duty that is expected of all of us as we await the coming of the Lord, even though we “know not the day or hour.” If farmers, for instance, were unwilling to work, then nobody would eat! Paul writes: “If anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat” (2 Thes. 3:10).
Even though we work hard to accomplish our goals, events may not always unfold in the way that we would like. But, the Lord doesn’t abandon His children; He always remains close to those who persevere in following Him. Even when we find ourselves in a situation that seems to test our faith, every gift and blessing that we receive is an opportunity for giving thanks to God because we know that in the end, if we cooperate with Him, He alone makes all things possible. It is with that attitude of thanksgiving that we gather at this time every year, grateful for the blessings that God has showered upon us. Whether large or small, God’s gifts must be used to benefit others as well as ourselves.
Thanksgiving provides a fitting parallel for the spiritual life as the Church prepares for the beginning of a new liturgical year. We look for new ways of being more open to God’s will in our lives so as to experience a more fruitful life in the Spirit, submitting ourselves in trust to the God who loves us. It is certainly fitting that we commemorate this occasion in the context of our celebration of the Eucharist. The word Eucharist means “thanksgiving.” Each time we come to the altar for this feast, we bring with us hearts that are grateful for the countless blessings that the Lord bestows upon us, particularly the gift of eternal salvation which has been won for us through His Son’s Passion, death, and Resurrection. As we give thanks, let’s renew our hope in the promise of eternal life in Heaven. Until that time comes, though, may we continue to heed the Lord’s command to “subdue the earth” (Gen. 1:28), working contentiously and diligently as His stewards who await the Master’s return, for “Blessed is that servant whom his master, on his arrival, finds doing so” (Mt 24:46).