The end is nigh, the placards used to say. For many people, the end seems to have come last Tuesday. For many Americans, the results of last Tuesday’s election was about the last thing they wanted to experience. But it did come to pass and the Republic will have to contend with the consequences.
It’s also the season when the readings in the liturgy scare tend to hell out of us, or so it is to be hoped, with accounts of what we tend to think of as the end of the world. It’s a sure sign Advent is coming. This year things are a little different, because many people have already had the hell scared out of them, or into them, by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world. For some years now, many people, including God-fearing Christians, or at least fearful ones, have been squirreling away food and water supplies, converting their stocks and bonds into ready cash, and moving across the country to desert and mountain hideaways. Several Internet sites, including Christian ones, are still selling survival supplies.
All this is not just the impact of the most contentious election in American history, or global climate change or the wars in Syrian, Afghanistan and Iraq, or problems in Pakistan or the threat of an Al Qaeda attacks or the return of sub-prime mortgage rates – about all of which we heard very little in the election campaign, so focused as it was on emails and temperament. It’s all of them. Despite the sudden surge on Wall Street, even economists are worried, and that’s enough to scare anyone.
And perhaps we should be jittery, if only because of the huge mess humans have made of things over the last fifty years or more. Our learning curve is pretty flat. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel from Luke, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. People have been jittery for a long time. If you don’t believe me, you can always catch up on the History Channel.
Jesus seems to have foreseen all that and actually warned us against getting too excited about rumors of the End Times, especially in Luke’s gospel. In today’s reading, for instance, he says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) Not by a long shot.
St. Paul was no less opposed to the spiritual and social paralysis that comes in the wake of trying to pin-point the Parousia. He wrote to the fidgety folks in Thessalonica, many of whom had worked themselves into a stew expecting the Second Coming of Christ, that “we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living” [2 Thess 3:11-12].
So what are we supposed to do? Why does the Church schedule these readings every year just before Advent? By now, we have heard it all so often, you’d think we’d be numb to the message. But dismissing the age-old Christian belief in the end of the world as just another outmoded myth misses the point just as much as overreacting to always-erroneous predictions of the day and the hour.
It’s a mistake, first of all, to think that Jesus was simply talking about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Fourth Temple. (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so you needn’t get panicky about Armageddon. Not yet, anyway.) What the prophet Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, credit cards, poverty, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what you see on television or read on the Internet. Mighty nations still succeed one another, corporations rise and fall, one form of currency replaces another, stock markets crash, and hurricanes come in tandem. Stars fall out of the sky, or seem to. Wars and rumors of war continue. And will no doubt keep right on into the next Millennium. The world remains very much with us.
But the message we hear in today’s readings is that we are not to locate our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Hope rests secure in God alone. But, on the other hand, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities, but must remain attentive to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole. For the world is the scene of our activity as Christians, not in order to create some sort of perfect super-state, and especially not to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Religious fanatics and political dictators have tried that many times in the past. And all they created in the long run were savage totalitarian regimes or doomed idealistic utopias that burned out or just faded into irrelevance.
Being a Christian is much simpler than that. We are called upon to build a human city, a humane habitat, a commonwealth of love and justice, of peace, truth and freedom. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless. For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted. Simple does not mean easy.
It isn’t by chance that the word “justice” appears so strikingly in the first reading and the responsorial psalm. If you missed it, consider taking another look before you go to bed tonight. Even St. Paul is thinking about justice when he reminds his first small church that no one should impose on anyone else, but everyone should contribute to the extent they can to the welfare of all. If you won’t work, then don’t expect to share the supper.
Human beings may well be able to wreck the world, and it looks like we stand a good chance of doing so if we don’t change our way of living soon — especially in this rich nation. But we can’t really save the world. In the end, God bestows the New Heaven and the New Earth. It will be a gift, not a credit-card purchase or some kind of spiritual dividend. But we’re not just marking time here. We are being prepared. And so when we say we believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, we really should lift up our hearts. For the old world is coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. In a word, inserting into this teetering planet a healthy dose of peace, love, justice, and freedom.
If we won’t work for a better world, how can we expect to have a Happy Thanksgiving? And we should have one. But when you count your blessings, don’t look back. Look ahead.