Not one stone left upon another

Fr Paolo Consonni, MCCJ

33rd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C

We are almost at the end of the liturgical year. In this Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 21:5-19), Jesus begins with a prophecy regarding the future destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem (it happened in 70 AD, several decades after Jesus’ death) and ends up speaking about the end of the world: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” (vv. 10-11) It seems to be a description of the daily news of our troubled time, and I realize that Jesus’ words are for our “today,” not only for the future.

Jesus is quite negative about the fate of the holiest religious institution in Israel, the Temple of Jerusalem: “There shall not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (v.6).  Jesus seems to accept the reality that any human structure, no matter how good or holy it seems to be, can be subject to failure and destruction. Jesus will not try to save the Temple – He will replace it with his Body – in Him, humanity can adore God in Spirit and truth.

Benedict XVI explained the attitude we need to have about human structures and organizations in his encyclical Spe salvi (nn.24-25).

First of all, He said that good structures are important for promoting good and ensuring justice. Yet, they work well only when they are animated by people who freely assent to the values these structures promote. In other words, there must be people who freely choose to uphold the goodness that those structures represent and promote. This choice, says Benedict XVI, cannot be automatic, or taken for granted, but it needs to be constantly renewed at any moment and by every generation. In the case of the Temple of Jerusalem, because the people of Israel increasingly gave up the spirit of God’s Covenant in favor of a legalistic and superficial religiosity, this choice rendered the Temple unable to fulfill its function.

In a broader context, Benedict XVI remarked that the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are, because “since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world […] Yet every generation must also make its own contribution to establishing convincing structures of freedom and of goodness which can help the following generation as a guideline for the proper use of human freedom; hence, always within human limits, they provide a certain guarantee also for the future. In other words: good structures help, but of themselves they are not enough. Man can never be redeemed simply from outside.”

Jesus’ words “Not one stone left upon another” is a reminder that any structure or organization, even within the Church, needs people who have the awareness of its true purpose and make the choice to commit with freedom, remembering that our trust is in God, not in the structure itself.

But those words also hint to a reality that many saints learned the hard way, namely that holiness is not measured by success or by external results, but it can be marked by what apparently looks like failure, fragility, even abrupt endings.

St. Daniel Comboni died in 1881 in Africa at age 50 of tropical fever at a terrible moment for the African missions: loss of missionaries, draught, famine, and rebels who systematically destroyed all the churches, schools, and dispensaries that he had toiled for so many years to build. Not even the stones of his tomb were left untouched: his bones were scattered around.

The energetic John Paul II entered the papacy in 1978 as an energic sportsman, enjoying hiking and swimming. But he died in 2005 after years of a debilitating sickness which slowly paralyzed him to the extent that he was unable to speak.

Blessed Charles de Foucault was murdered in 1916 in Algeria by the nomads he came to serve, after years of silent witness without making any converts and unable to find even one brother to join him.

We could give many other examples. The point is that, while experiencing these apparent failures at the human level, these saints imitated Christ who, on the Cross, naked and abandoned by His disciples, outside the walls of the sacred city, offered His life for the salvation of humanity. The apparent destruction of His person and ministry was the moment in which His love shone most brightly.

In the end, we do not need to worry about the fate of the structures, organizations, or groups that we have spent our lives building and developing. “Not a hair of your head will perish” (v.18) means that the love and effort we put into each of our endeavors is cherished by God and will never be forgotten. As St. Teresa of Calcutta famously said, “God has called us not to be successful, but to be faithful,” echoing Jesus’ conclusion: “This will be a time for you to bear testimony […] By your endurance you will gain your lives” (vv 13.19).