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The Abomination of Desolation

This terrifying concept from Scripture used to set us up for Advent. What does it mean?

Joseph Shaw

The traditional lectionary for the Twenty-Fourth, or Last, Sunday After Pentecost has for the Gospel reading Matthew 24:15-35, which begins this way: “When therefore you shall see the abomination of desolation, which was spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place: he that readeth let him understand. Then they that are in Judea, let them flee to the mountains.” This is from what is called the Gospel of Matthew’s apocalypse: mysterious, profound, and troubling.

One mystery about it is why it should be found on that particular Sunday, as we are about to enter Advent. (It is not found anywhere—not even as an option for some category of martyr—in the lectionary produced after the Second Vatican Council.)

The obvious, but wrong, answer is that a treatment of the “Last Things” (death, judgement, hell, and heaven) is called for on the occasion of the end of the Church’s year. This is wrong because the Last Sunday After Pentecost was not, historically, regarded as the end of the Church’s year; there was no such concept. The liturgical year is not a linear thing, but a cycle.

The concerns of the final Masses after Pentecost are not sharply distinguished from those of the beginning of Advent. On the contrary, there is an overlap in the development of the missal, as some places had an Advent of five Sundays, not four. The Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost begins the series of Collects beginning Excita: “stir up,” traditionally a signal for stirring the Christmas pudding, but more seriously an urgent request to God, to stir up “the will of thy faithful people.” The First Sunday of Advent implores God to stir up “thy power” to protect us; the Second asks him to stir up “our hearts,” to be ready for Christ’s coming.

In this way, the Gospel of the Abomination of Desolation needs to be read in the context of Advent, which is prepared for not just by this Sunday, but by several preceding Sundays. We find references to the Last Judgment in the Epistles of the Twenty-Third and Twenty-Second Sundays, and in both the Epistle and the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday.

What unites the Last Judgment and Advent is the idea of Christ coming to earth. He comes to earth, at Christmas, as a helpless infant; he will return as a judge. But the infant is not as helpless as he appears. His presence in the world creates a crisis: just as the wicked will tremble when Christ appears for the second time, so they are filled with consternation at his first appearance. As we sing in the traditional Introit of Midnight Mass, “Why do the nations rage?” (Ps. 2:1).

In preparing for the coming of Christ as a baby, we also prepare for the coming of Christ as judge, for the baby is already a judge. He forces us to judge ourselves, in a manner of speaking (see John 3:18). The good and the bad, King Herod and the Wise Men and the shepherds, separate themselves by their contrasting reactions to the birth of the Savior. Our preparation for Christmas must be informed by the need to prepare for the end times, because Christ’s appearance as a child is an anticipation of the end times.

The way the apocalypse is anticipated in history is made clear by the Gospel of the Abomination of Desolation. This is, as Christ says, a reference to prophet Daniel. In this discourse, Christ moves seamlessly from what looks like a clear description of the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, a historic event that was to take place in A.D. 70, to the idea of the judgment of the whole of creation. Daniel, likewise, seems to be talking about something specific—the desecration of the Temple by the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV in 168 B.C.—but segues into a treatment of the final judgment of all nations by God. This apocalyptic tradition is developed further by the Book of the Apocalypse or Revelation.

The final stage of history, which will culminate in the Last Judgment, will be characterized by the persecution of the Church and terrible, blasphemous acts. It follows that the pattern of history will see, repeatedly, periods of persecution and desolation, followed by some kind of intervention, judgment, or vindication of the Church by God. This pattern may be difficult to discern at the time, but it is clear enough on the long view. A good example would be the persecution by the emperor Diocletian, the most severe of all Roman persecutions, which started in 303 and was followed by the emperor Constantine’s favor toward Christianity, notably by the Edict of Milan in 313.

One lesson to draw from the Gospel of the Abomination of Desolation is that the worse things get, the closer we may be to God’s decisive intervention. Another is that terrible persecutions of the Church, and terrible desecrations of holy things, will be the prelude to the Second Coming, but pretty bad things happening is also part of the pattern of history leading up to that point. These things will happen many times—they already have happened many times—and each time, the Church has recovered and prospered again. That is not to say that enduring these times will be easy, or rebuilding the Church’s shattered institutions will be a walk in the park. Nevertheless, as G.K. Chesterton expressed it, “Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.”

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