Between the Old and the New – A Meditation on Transitions

Luke 21:5 19

Next week is the Last Sunday after Pentecost, sometimes referred to as Christ the King Sunday. The following Sunday will begin the Christian new year, and the season of Advent. As another liturgical season ends and one begins the church, through her readings, invites us to meditate on endings. How do we read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the transition from one way of being to another? Another question might be, “What does Jesus teach his disciples about these end times?” The Bible is full of this “end times” literature called apocalyptic literature, and in today’s Gospel Jesus is teaching in the tradition of that school of thought. Apokaluptikos (from the Greek) means an unveiling or the uncovering of something new. This type of literature calls to mind how different things that are being brought forth, or showing forth, will bring about a newness to our worlds – both subjectively and corporately. Today’s Gospel, coupled with the 1st reading and even with today’s Psalm could be an invitation for us all to reflect on how well (or not so well) we transition from one thing to another. If we can meditate on how we already transition, then this can prepare us for either the ultimate transition from this life to the next, or prepare us for the unveiling of God’s Advent, the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. In order to do this, I’ll be using the five aspects of natural ending experiences as taught by William Bridges. Bridges teaches that by naming and understanding these five ways of transitioning can help us practice them. Jesus takes a different way, and asks his followers to trust, obey, and rely on him through specific transitions as he and only he can be named and crowned King of Kings and Lord of Lords. I want to pick apart today’s Gospel by first naming what these 5 ways of transitioning are. According to Bridges, they are as follows:  When we transition, we all have the potential to disengage, dismantle, disidentify, and be disoriented and disenchanted. After we look at the Gospel with a psychological lens, it’s my hope to remember Jesus’ teaching, as well as the Church’s theological response to it.

Today’s Gospel begins with Jesus and a few of his followers marveling about the sights and sounds of the Temple, the ultimate holy place for Jews in the 1st century. I can imagine them walking around the place like tourists on vacation with Jesus being the tour guide. But I’m not so sure Jesus made a very good one for as soon as the disciples point out the building’s majesty, and ooh and awe over the splendor of its complexity, Jesus (the tour guide) says, “Ya know, all the Temple’s beauty and splendor will one day be no more. One day it will crumble and be destroyed. (Here ends the tour. Don’t forget to tip your guide.”) His prediction certainly took all the air out of the room. It was an alarming and dismantling statement. In shock, the disciples asked, “When will this be?”

When something is dismantled, it is torn down, taken apart, or broken. Often times we can try to pick up the pieces and reassemble them, but like all the king’s horses and all the king’s men tried to reassemble the great egg, Humpty Dumpty, we too finally must surrender to the fact that what once was will never be again. Being dismantled by something is living east of Eden our eyes no longer shut, but wide awake, adjusting themselves to a new light. It’s the difference between the great city of Berlin prior to November 1989, and after. In our own country, old ways of living were gone with the wind after the collapse of the World Trade Center in September of 2001. On the positive end, a dismantling occurs when two persons throw off the single life and put on the vocation of marriage, or when you finally reach the age of retirement. Having built a career, you finally have the chance to say ‘goodbye’ to it.

“When will this be,” the disciples asked? Jesus answered them saying, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and, `The time is near!’ Do not go after them.

Another form of transition occurs other than a dismantling. With Jesus warning his disciples not to be led astray by false teachers and charlatans, today we might say that Jesus is asking them to remember disidentification. Disidentification has to do with changing one’s identity, and occurs naturally from one transition to another. For example, we all begin as infants and have the potential to be babies, children, young adults all the way to senior adults. We disidentify as students when we graduate. We are no longer unemployed when we have a job. In today’s Eucharistic Prayer we are reminded that “in Jesus” we put on a new identity. At the Lord’s Supper liturgy we pray, “To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation; to prisoners, freedom; to the sorrowful, joy.” Put differently, as Christians we identify with Christ as our Savior and in doing this we are no longer slaves to sin, but freed up to love in Him.

Another way we naturally end something is through the process of disorientation. Listen to the Gospel again:

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then Jesus said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.

Being disoriented can be scary. You can have feelings of being lost or anxious. You’re on a boat and haven’t yet discovered your sea legs, or you’ve reached the shore and you feel as if you’re still floating. But Jesus has good news for his listeners. Like the angels that comforted the shepherds with their announcement of Jesus’ birth, he too councils his disciples, “Do not be terrified.” (Easier said than done). Many of you are currently caretakers for your spouse, or an aging parent or loved one. Disorientation occurs almost daily for both caretaker and caregiver as old ways are dismantled and new identities tried on. In my own family, I’ve watched both my wife and her mother agonize over decisions to take away the keys to the car for my father-in-law, who was diagnosed with ALS last year. Piece by piece the fabric of what used to be now unravels as keys are taken away, the loss of mobility, speech, basic communication, dignity. In these situations, disorientation occurs for all parties involved as some days are lived in a dizzying fog somewhere between numbness and exasperation. To top it off, “nations will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” What does this mean other than a great battle of wills. “Don’t take away my keys,” is really the loved one saying, “Don’t take away my control.” “Don’t take way my abilities,” is really the loved one saying, “Don’t take away my freedom.”

In St. Benedict’s chapter on “The Sick” in his Rule for his monastery, he wrote, “Let the sick on their part bear in mind that they are served out of honor for God, and let them not by their excessive demands distress anyone who serves them.” For those of you who are caregivers, or who have been caregivers this statement may come across as highly ideological on Benedict’s part. Again, easier said than done, but I wonder what it would look like if both caregiver and care receiver took seriously Benedict’s teaching here, and truly honored one another in their ministry to each other? I sometimes advise persons who are terminally ill that it is their job and/or their final act of ministry to show their family and loved ones how to die a holy death. Sometimes they take me up on it. Sometimes not.

The last section of Jesus’ teaching has to do with all the resistance to change and transition that will occur, and what he councils is to not resist the change, but to disengage from the way things have always been. Put differently, there is a solemn disenchantment that must occur.

“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

This is the old world starting to pass away, isn’t it? Being arrested implies the law of the land. Kings and governors rule the land with the law, but Jesus is predicting that both law and land will be no more. There will be a new world order, a new song, a new way of being. If one knows this, then one can be at once engaged in the culture as well as disengaged with the way things have always been living into the kingdom of God and its virtues which Jesus is bringing about.

Thinking again about caregiving and care receiving, an illness or diagnosis is not intentional, and oftentimes comes as a surprise. Jesus is calling his disciples to not be surprised, and to start practicing now how to disengage from the ways of the world that constantly seeks out power, privilege, wealth, and pleasure. “Disenchant yourselves from these ways of being; instead, be intimately involved with me,” he might of said.

Jesus ends with this statement, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” By the endurance of living into your vocation for 30 years, by the endurance of being married 40 years, by the endurance of showing the world compassion, grace, and mercy, you will gain your souls. Put theologically, “By your relationship with me as the way, the truth and the life,” says Jesus, “you will gain your souls.” “Well, if he is the life,” Bishop Robert Barron teaches, then “that life which is opposed to him has to give way; and if he’s the truth, then false claimants to truth must cede to him; and if he’s the way, then false ways have to be abandoned.” “So,” the bishop concludes, “as we await the Lord’s second coming, we must give our lives to him and renounce everything that opposes him.”[1]

This, finally, is the good news in today’s reading. Like we pray in The Lord’s supper liturgy, “In him, you [O God] have delivered us from evil, and made us worthy to stand before you. In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.”

In him. In Jesus. In the Christ…is finally where we live, move, and have our being through old ways and new ways and transitions in between. In him is our invitation to walk in love as Christ loves us, to sing new songs, to rejoice and be glad. So as we say goodbye to this liturgical year, do not be terrified; practice life’s natural transitions; and finally, live fully, so that you may die empty handed letting yourself be held by nothing but his love.

[1]                Daily Gospel Reflections from Bishop Robert Barron. Word on Fire Ministries, accessed on 11/14/19.

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