When November rolled around this year, a new liturgical accent made a startling appearance in the sanctuary at my parish: A black altar banner.
I say ‘startling’, because black is a liturgical color we don’t tend to see very often in Catholic churches these days.
I’m old enough to remember a time when priests always wore black chasubles at funeral Masses, to symbolize death and mourning. But since Vatican II, that tradition has largely given way to white vestments, attesting to our hope in the resurrection.
Now, I see ‘black is back’ – at least on a small scale at our parish, for a limited time during the year…the month when we remember our dearly departed. And I have to admit, the message in this Sunday’s gospel tends to make ‘black’ feel liturgically appropriate.
Jesus has dark words to offer those who were getting caught up in the things of this world:
While some people were speaking about how the temple was adorned with costly stones and votive offerings, Jesus said, “All that you see here–the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.”
Keep listening, and you discover he’s really just getting started:
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.
The words in this gospel passage are definitely enough to put the fear of God in you. Enough to turn your outlook from ‘bright’ to ‘black.’ But here’s the amazing thing: Jesus doesn’t seem to want his dire prophesy to stir up anxiety in our hearts. Instead, he positions it as a message of hope:
‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end,’ he says. And: ‘By your perseverance you will secure your lives.’
What we might think we ‘know’, in other words, is not always the best barometer of God’s providence, or the best indicator of God’s presence. And as I pondered this spiritual truth, it reminded me of something I’d read recently about the limits of human understanding and perception. Peering into the cosmos—according to the very smart people at NASA—can be an exceptionally humbling experience.
More is unknown than is known. We know how much dark energy there is because we know how it affects the universe’s expansion. Other than that, it is a complete mystery. But it is an important mystery. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%.
The rest – everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter – adds up to less than 5% of the universe.
So perhaps ‘black’ is precisely the right color to charge our spiritual batteries in these final days of the liturgical year. It is the color – not just of death and mourning – but of an immense reality beyond our imagination.
Black is back – grabbing our attention in this month of remembrance, and inviting us to gaze with wonder into a nearly incomprehensible hope.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.