Lesson from the fig tree

The readings this Sunday are filled with imagery and symbolism which pose a particular challenge to every preacher. In the gospel, Jesus talks about the end of time in a discourse which is probably the most difficult gospel text due to its content and language.

Jesus speaks of a future that surpasses our comprehension and uses a literary genre which Daniel uses in our first reading. Such a way of speaking is referred to as the apocalyptic language which is symbolic and not meant to be understood literally.

The word apocalypse (from Greek) literally means an “unveiling,” a manifestation of something hidden. Thus, the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible is also called the Book of Revelation. Apocalyptic revelations are usually given in the context of some great crisis or upheaval. Thus, Daniel speaks of “a time unsurpassed in distress,” and Jesus warns of “those days of great tribulation.” And what is the content of the revelation?

Earlier in the gospel, Jesus speaks of the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, wars of global proportion, earthquakes and famine, persecution of the disciples and even betrayal within the Church. To cap it all, “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.”

In this tumultuous scenario, the Son of Man appears coming in the clouds and sets things right. The figure of the “Son of Man coming in the clouds” is taken from the vision of the prophet Daniel (first reading) which Jesus aptly applies to himself (the God-man).

Jesus comes to bring a new order to a chaotic world. However, for the new order to be established, the old order must pass away. The image of the malfunctioning of the cosmos vividly portrays this dynamic. The darkening sun, the waning moon and the falling stars are to be not literally understood. Note that these heavenly bodies have been man’s guide for navigation and direction since ancient times (like today’s GPS). Their dissolution simply means that old standards and references will no longer serve with the coming of the Son of Man.

Jesus introduces a new order that topples the old one. Familiar criteria are put in disarray and values totally turned upside down. “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first… blessed are those who are poor, woe to those who are rich… he who keeps his life will lose it, he who loses his life for my sake will keep it, etc.”

The central and most radical revelation is that death does not have the final word. The Son of Man conquers death with his resurrection. Thus, Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection become the template for final victory and salvation. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” Jesus, the Eternal Word, is indeed the center and enduring point of reference in the midst of the world’s upheavals.

The gospel ends with the lesson from the fig tree. Its tender branches and budding leaves herald the nearness of summer and the promise of a new and fuller life. The lesson then is one of faith and hope, and not of fear and despair.

In today’s gospel, Jesus does not so much speak of the end of the world, but of old attitudes, ways of thinking and valuing… so that a new life may be born in us. In fact, he does not bother about when and how the world will end.

The United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) has just concluded, and we cannot help but relate this important world event to our readings. The dark picture presented by the conference of our present world and its future is frightening and frustrating.

The frustration stems from the seeming inability of the world leaders to commit themselves and put their acts together to find serious and effective solutions to arrest the climate emergency. Boris Johnson reminded them that we are one minute from midnight on the doomsday clock.

A few days ago, I joined a candle-lighting ceremony organized by our youth on the occasion of the 8th anniversary of Yolanda. In my message, I told them that despite the possibility of a devastated and apocalyptic world, as featured in dark futuristic movies, I still believe that the world will be saved for two reasons.

First, the countless young people who are driven by their love for mother earth and do their share to save her. Second, God whose love for the earth he has created is infinitely greater than ours. In fact, God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to save it. (cf Jn 3:16)*

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