The similarities and contrasts between today’s gospel (Luke 17:20-25) and Sunday’s gospel (Luke 21:5-19) is interesting. Today, we read of Jesus telling his disciples, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation” and “the Son of Man in his day will be like lightning, which flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other.” On Sunday, we will hear him tell his disciples what signs to watch for: wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines, and pestilence; fearful events and great signs from heaven.
Do these statements all refer to the same thing? Are we moderns to see these as applying to a past event, our current circumstances, or some time in the future? All three could be true.
The first, about the kingdom defying observation, seems apt in two senses. For approximately thirty years, the Son of God lived among us without appearing extraordinary. Surely, he would have been known as being unusually virtuous, but purely in a human sense. It wasn’t until after his baptism that he began his public ministry, performing miracles in testament to his authority. But he is also present in the Eucharist in a way that defies observation. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote (as translated), “What the senses fail to fathom, let us grasp through faith’s consent.”
What of the lightning in the sky? Lightning flashes briefly, illuminating the darkness and providing a brief moment of stark contrast. Certainly this could apply to the second coming, but it seems to me that it would be equally applicable to the three shocking days of Our Lord’s passion, death, and resurrection. Those three days were like a lightning strike in the history of the world.
As for the wars, earthquakes, and famines, doesn’t the text imply that these are signs of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple? I have heard apologists argue from historical records that these things did indeed precede the destruction of the temple.
Interpreting these sayings as referring to the hidden life of Jesus, or the Eucharist, or the Paschal Mystery, or the Siege of Jerusalem does not rule out other interpretations. They could be interpreted as references to the second coming of Christ at the end of time. We cannot know the date, and looking for it won’t hasten it or make it immanent. When it happens, we’ll know it. It will not be a secret; rather, He will come in glory. Reading the signs of the times can be a risky business. Paul, without contradicting Christ, wrote to the Thessalonians that the second coming would occur at a time of peace and complacency.