White robes in the time of great distress: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Matthew 5:1–12a:

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him. He began to teach them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the land. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven.”

Do we live in times of great distress? If you spend enough time on social media and watching too many viral videos, it can certainly seem that way. We seem anxious to be anxious, and most vexed when we should not be vexed at all. Humanity has never seen such prosperity and long lives, even if we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic for the first time in a century.

Pandemics used to be a way of life, but even before the 1918 influenza pandemic, ordinary illnesses could kill. We only have reliable clean-water systems now; a century ago, illnesses like typhoid and cholera would spread like wildfire and impact people from all classes. Illnesses requiring surgery were often death sentences until the late 19th century. Before modern agricultural science, food was often scarce and unreliable. Wars raged between nations and within the smallest of communities. We now not only live longer lives but healthier lives, and at a standard of living that a few centuries earlier would have only been afforded to nobility.

We certainly know all of the above on an intellectual basis, but the tension and strife of our lives today is real, too — just in a different context. Some people don’t share in the prosperity, while others live in what might have passed for war zones in another era. Families turn on families; friends turn into enemies. In some areas of the globe, the standard of living has only marginally increased and all of the old dangers still remain.  Life is still fragile, nature can still hold its dangers, and tribalism takes many forms.

Thus, we still feel as though we live in times of great distress, as in our first reading today in Revelation:

Then one of the elders spoke up and said to me, “Who are these wearing white robes, and where did they come from?” I said to him, “My lord, you are the one who knows.” He said to me, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

This passage can be interpreted as a reference to Armageddon, or perhaps to the fall of the second temple in Jerusalem. It can be attributed to a lot of the horrors over the last two millennia, perhaps especially to twentieth-century horrors in particular. John’s use of the word the for time of great distress makes it sound like a particular event.

What if, however, John’s Revelation refers to something else entirely — something more universal? If this is meant to describe each journey in a fallen world, then we calculate both our distress and our own part in it on the wrong principles.

These are the wages of living in a world that has fallen through original sin. The distress originates in the insistence of men and women forming their hearts according to only their wills, and not to the Will of God, the sin committed by Adam and Eve in the beginning. We wish to be our own gods unto ourselves in the one creation provided by the Lord, and that cannot help but cause “great distress.”

What are we to do in such times? Christ’s Beatitudes lay out the path for rising above each person’s “time of great distress.” That begins in our reading today, in which Jesus lays out the proper way to align our will to the Lord’s in a fallen world. Be poor of spirit, meaning that we must recognize the Lord’s authority over us. Mourn our own sins and the damage they cause others, a process that will keep our eyes open to sin and its true malicious nature. The meek do not seek to exploit their authority and resources but use them to help God’s children.

And so on, and so on. The Beatitudes are filled with layers of meaning, but among those are Christ’s exhortation to find the path of salvation by emulating God’s own self-sacrificing love, and aligning our will to His for the benefit of all. It’s a roadmap for the time of great distress, no matter in what era and in what context that distress exists.

John’s epistle in today’s second reading makes that lesson explicit:

The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.

We are not called to find ways to purify the Earth and all its people. At best, we can only work to purify ourselves and evangelize the Gospels to spread the news of salvation to others, and then only through the Holy Spirit can we hope to succeed. We cannot make our robes clean in this world, but we can allow the Lord to work through us by aligning ourselves to His will and being His instrument of peace and love.

When we are called to His table, we may well be asked what we each did in our “time of great distress” before we enter His kingdom to live as the Lord intended. Will our answers wash away the stains we have collected along the way?

The front-page image is a detail from “The Sermon on the Mount” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1598. Currently on display at the Getty Center, via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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