On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, the Church turns her mind and heart to the contemplation of the end of the world. Here she accepts the teaching of Jesus that the world as we know it is passing away, that here we have no lasting city, but seek a home that is yet to come. She confesses her faith in the Last One, Who is the Lord of the Last Things, Who will come again to our earth.
At His Second Coming, our traditional Gospel today teaches us, the Lord will come openly and in glory, with the sign of His Cross in the sky for all to behold. He will come again not in the weakness and poverty of His Sacred Nativity in the manger of Bethlehem, but in the regal victory of His Resurrection and Ascension. He will come not to save us – He has done that already – but to judge us, consummating His beautiful work of salvation. In His First Coming, He came to sow; at the end of time, He comes to gather.
We have a tendency to fear the Second Coming of Jesus. For one, we know our sinfulness and how unworthy in ourselves we are of His Mercy. For another, we are attached to the pleasures of this life and wish not to lose them. The conquering of these fears is the blessed work of Jesus’s coming into our hearts by grace, which applies to us the salvation He won for us in His First Coming, so that we can be eager for His Second Coming.
On August 29 the Church celebrates the Beheading of John the Baptist. This is a most poignant feast for our time, in which God’s law concerning marriage is so often broken and ignored. St. John the Baptist was martyred for defending God’s law concerning marriage and this makes him a great example and help to all in our time who undertake the same joyful task.
The story of John’s beheading begins with the sinful and invalid marriage of Herod the Tetrarch with Herodias, the lawful wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. Herod had divorced his own wife, whose name was Phasaelis. Herod, therefore, had committed adultery in entering into “marriage” with Herodias; neither he nor Herodias were free to marry. How many Catholics and non-Catholics in our time have committed this same sin and live in this same situation!
John the Baptist is the biblical model for how the Church responds pastorally – with true love – to persons who contradict Jesus’s teaching that “whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery.” Herod was quite fond of John and loved to hear him preach, more out of curiosity and admiration than out of a desire for the truth. John did not let this friendship with Herod compromise his love for God and so he told Herod and Herodias the plain truth of their situation: they were living in adultery and they had to separate if they wanted to stop offending God and avoid eternal damnation.
Herod was perplexed by John’s teaching because he was a weak man. We might imagine he was the kind of person who knows what the right thing is but lacks the moral courage to carry it out. Herodias, on the other hand, was full of malice and hated John. She wanted him dead because of his call to repentance. She saw him as the enemy of all her desires, especially for the power that comes with being the legal wife of the tetrarch. In her hatred for John, she prevailed upon Herod to imprison him.
The Octave of the Assumption of Mary, which we are celebrating now, culminates tomorrow with the traditional feast of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (in the modern calendar, it’s the Queenship of Mary). It’s beautiful that the Church honors our Mother’s glory by venerating especially her Heart. This veneration is the reason why August is traditionally called the Month of the Immaculate Heart of Mary. This feast of Mary’s Heart is the octave feast of the feast of her Assumption into Heaven, which means the two feasts are connected in the logic of the Sacred Liturgy.
The truth of Mary’s Assumption means that her physical Heart is in Heaven, glorified in its resurrection and ascension in her Son. Mary is the first to share in her Son’s Resurrection and Ascension. She followed where He went first. Her Heart, which was always in Heaven by faith, hope, and love, is now in Heaven by glory. As we saw last Sunday, she had first suffered and died with Him in her Heart. We celebrate on August 22 that she has also risen with Him!
Each Christian is invited by grace to this same sharing in Jesus’s Resurrection and Ascension. We are all called and empowered to live, like Mary, with our hearts already in Heaven by faith, hope, and charity, so that they can one day be in Heaven in glory. This is the key to happiness even in this life: to have our treasures and hearts already in the Heavenly happiness that never passes away. We are called by Jesus to live like Mary, suffering and dying with Him so as to rise with Him.