Johnny Cash and the End Times

Homily for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C.

One of my favorite music videos is of the song Hurt by Johnny Cash. Filmed just a few months before his death, Cash seems aware in the video that his days are numbered. Although his voice is strong, it feels like it will soon go silent. And his eyes have that empty, vacant look, as if their light will soon go out. As scenes from his life flash before him in the video, his voice is filled with regret. “What have I become? / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away / In the end / And you could have it all / My empire of dirt / I will let you down / I will make you hurt.” In one scene from the video, Cash is seated at table with a magnificent feast before him. And then, with shaking hand, he lifts a glass filled with wine and pours it all over everything. Looking straight into the camera, he sings: “And you could have it all / My empire of dirt.” It’s as if Cash is saying that, despite his enormous success, despite the millions of records he has sold, in the end, it’s nothing—it’s an empire of dirt. Wealth and fame can’t make up for the regret he has for the choices he’s made in life.

In our gospel, Jesus and his disciples are on the Mount of Olives. From there they can see the temple in all its splendor. Built of massive white stones and adorned with gold and precious gems, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world. On a bright, sunny day, it probably looked as majestic as a snow-covered mountain. It’s no surprise that it earned a few admiring remarks from those who were with Jesus.

Now Jesus had a great deal of respect for the temple. Like other faithful Jews, Jesus worshiped at the temple. He also made pilgrimage to the temple for Passover and other important feasts. And He referred to the temple as His Father’s house and a house of prayer. So, when Jesus responds to those admiring the temple, He means no disrespect. He simply observes, and prophesies, that the days will come when the temple is destroyed, “when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”

And, of course, what Jesus predicts will happen, does happen, forty years later. In the year 70 AD, the Romans invaded Jerusalem. They killed many of its residents, destroyed the temple, and took its treasures. For faithful Jews at the time, this felt like the end of the world. This is because the temple didn’t just represent the heart of Jewish worship, it actually represented all of creation. The innermost part of the temple, the Holy of Holies, represented heaven, while other parts of the temple represented the earth. On the veil of the temple were embroidered various constellations and the temple menorah with its seven branches represented the number of known planets in the ancient world. The twelve loaves of bread that were kept in the temple represented the twelve months of the year. So, when the temple was destroyed, it was as if all of space and time were destroyed. It was the end of the world as the Jews knew it, and they did not feel fine.

As we come to the end of this liturgical year, the Church always invites us to consider the end times. She invites us to do this, not primarily to get us to speculate about the future, but to help us live well in the present. The signs of the end times that Jesus lists in our gospel—wars, natural disasters, and persecutions—are present in almost every age. Their obvious presence in our world today is no reason to suspect that these, in fact, are the end times. The point is not to speculate about when all of space and time will end, but to prepare for the end of our own personal voyage through space and time.

There’s a prayer that I always pray with the servers and lectors before I begin Mass. It’s a prayer inspired by a quote that hangs on the wall in the sacristy of every convent Mother Teresa founded: “Priest of God, celebrate this Mass as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass.” These are words to live by, not just when celebrating Mass, but when doing anything. We’ve all heard that saying, which has become a bit cliché, to “live each day as if it were your last.” And there’s a lot of wisdom in that. But it’s not enough to live each day as if it were our last; we have to live each day as if it were our first day, our last day, our only day. This is the best recipe for a life without regret.

I don’t know about you, but there are a lot of things I regret: a lot of things I regret doing, and even more that I regret saying, or not saying. Some of these things I’ve been able to fix and undo; some of them I haven’t. Sometimes my life feels like a beautiful temple, sometimes like an empire of dirt. But at the end of the day, no matter how I’m feeling, I have to give it over to God. God wants the things we’re proud of and the things we regret. He wants it all. And He can make all things, even the things we regret, work for good. The challenge is to acknowledge those things we regret and then give them over to God, to ask Him to put right what we got wrong, to heal what we hurt, and mend what we broke. We can only do so much, and the rest we have to put in God’s hands.

As we come to the end of this liturgical year, it’s good to reflect on the end of our own lives. And that’s something I’d encourage us all to do this week. This is something that the saints did, and they recommended others do so as well. They even had a saying for it: memento mori: remember that you must die.

Reflecting on the end of our lives puts a lot of things in perspective; it helps us see what’s truly important. Wealth and worldly success fade in the light of eternity. They prove to be, in the end, an “empire of dirt.” But when everything else has faded, faith, hope, and love will remain. In the twilight of life, we will not regret these three things—faith, hope, and love—for they are the greatest treasures here on earth, and the only treasures we can take with us. And when our faith has turned to sight, and our hope has been fulfilled, all that will be left is love. And the love with which we love here on earth will be the love with which we love in heaven. So let us love well, and all will be well. That is the best recipe for a life without regret. Amen.