Thursday, November 14, 2013

Is the Sky Falling?

Thirty Third Ordinary Sunday Year C

Mention the story of Chicken Little, the classic tale of rumour, paranoia, and infectious mass hysteria, and you would most likely be reminded of the constant refrain of the various characters therein, ‘The sky is falling!” Set against this extremely alarmist outlook of the ‘end’, is the other more sedated worldview that perceives any preoccupation with the end of the world as irrational. Thus, T. S. Eliot, at the conclusion of his 1925 poem, “The Hollow Men,” wrote, “This is the way the world ends; Not with a bang but a whimper.” That’s a far cry from the cosmic crisis depicted in the apocalyptic genre of books and films, which is often crammed full of bangs, computer-generated crashes, explosions, earthquakes, and floods, including invading aliens or mythological gods bent on destroying humanity.

Curiosity about the end of the world abounds. For some, the Lord’s return marking the End times evokes eager and joyful anticipation. But for most others, it spells dread and fear.  I guess the difference in attitude takes a lifetime to acquire, a lifetime of preparation, and a lifetime of faithfulness. The passing of a millennium, wars and natural disasters are commonly interpreted as signs of approaching apocalypse; future famines and ecological crises are often promoted as hastening the same. But are we really living in the end times? Is it only a myth generated by brainless cult leaders poised to create mass hysteria? And what, exactly, does the Catholic Church teach about the end of the world?

A cursory reading of the New Testament gives the impression of two distinct and seemingly opposing positions. On the one hand, there is the resolute rejection of asking for signs and predicting the end based on empirical evidence of history. In this line of thought, the Second Coming of Christ or the End of the World resists all efforts at dating. The only answer to the request for signs and to every attempt to make Christ’s coming a matter of empirical description is the rejection of the question itself and its replacement with the challenge, “Be watchful!” “Be vigilant!” Date-setting is not an option for followers of Christ.

But there is also another line of biblical thought, often found in apocalyptic literature that asserts that there are signs announcing Christ’s coming and a vigilant Christian should be wise enough to pay attention to these. How do we understand and reconcile these two seemingly opposing lines? We can do so only in the light of the divine human nature of Christ. On the one hand, we have Christ who is also God, who is the goal of history, who transcends time and thus cannot be measured by it. On the other hand, Christ is also the man, a subject of time and through his coming, the invisible God has been made visible and thus signs of his presence are discernible.

Our gospel passage naturally brings together both lines of thought. This pericope begins with Jesus prophesying the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. This begs the further question which is placed on the lips of the disciples, “when will this happen, then, and what sign will there be that this is about to take place?” Jesus first provides an important caution that they should not be deceived by false prophets who either present themselves as messiahs or postulate the date of the apocalyptic event. “Refuse to join them … do not be frightened.” But then, Jesus proceeds to enumerate the signs, “Nation will fight against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes and plagues and famines here and there; there will be fearful sights and great signs from heaven.” This followed by a slew of persecutions.

As dramatic and frightening as these cataclysmic signs may be, the signs here and mentioned elsewhere in scriptures, at any rate, do not permit a dating of the End. Social revolutions, political upheavals, religious persecutions, cataclysmic disasters are not confined to any age. The truth of the matter is that you would find these signs in every age of human history. They do, however, relate the End to history – but by compelling every age to be seen literally as ‘the End’, and thus the call for constant vigilance and watchfulness. They indicate that the time of the End is ever present, that the world never ceases to touch that ‘wholly other’ world, and so time is no longer measured as ‘chronos’ (chronogically measured according to clocks, calenders and sun dials), but has also become ‘chairos’, the critical moment of decision, because by Christ coming, everyone is now compelled to make a choice, to choose him or to reject him, one can never remain neutral. Our neutrality already betrays a rejection.

Even in his own age, St Paul encountered members of Christian communities who read the signs incorrectly and as a result of that, made the incorrect response. When Paul wrote to the Christians in Thessalonica, some of the community, prompted by erroneous ideas about the coming of Christ, had opted for a kind of retirement. Because of the idleness of some of its members, the rest of the community was burdened financially. They had become a social nuisance. Paul admonished these people and reminded them that if they were truly believed that the End was at hand, they should be inspired by loving altruism rather than by lazy selfishness. Rather than to be distracted by trying to look for signs and give all kinds of strange unearthly interpretations to them, Christians should always be concerned with the task of the advancement of the gospel. The End Times stresses the urgency of this task. 
For us Catholics, the Last Days have already begun. The World is coming to an end! It started with the first coming of Christ at his Incarnation. “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world” (Heb 1:1-2). It was the Incarnation, the entrance of God into time and space, which ushered in the end times and the last days.  The heart of this teaching is Jesus’ proclamation that he was establishing the Kingdom of God. This everlasting kingdom was realised through his death, his resurrection, and his ascension into heaven. At The End, the return of Christ in glory will fully reveal and manifest the Kingdom.

In fact, Christ himself is the Kingdom. He calls out for all men to enter into his divine life, which on earth is found in his Mystical Body. This is the work of divine restoration. Thus, the last days are all about a new creation and a new people, chosen by Jesus Christ and growing within history. Therefore, “by gazing on the risen Christ,” wrote Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, “Christianity knew that a most significant coming had already taken place. It no longer proclaimed a pure theology of hope, living from mere expectation of the future, but pointed to a ‘now’ in which the promise had already become present. Such a present was, of course, itself hope, for it bears the future within itself.”

So, unlike popular imagery of the End Times, Catholics do not need to hit the panic button and run helter skelter for cover whilst crying, ‘the sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ Indeed, we await the Second of Christ with great anticipation and we ritually celebrate it whenever we gather for the Eucharist, the “eschatological sacrament.” All of the sacraments have an eschatological character and purpose—that is, they are oriented to our eternal communion with God. This is especially true of the Eucharist, for it is the “pledge of glory” and “an anticipation of the heavenly glory”. For us, anticipation and readiness need not turn into despair, fear, or the error of date setting. For us, it means being focused on being true children of God. To do so calls for us faithfulness, perseverance and endurance

“The doctrine of the Second Coming has failed, so far as we are concerned”, wrote C. S. Lewis, “if it does not make us realise that at every moment of every year in our lives (the) question ‘What if this present were the world’s last night?’ is equally relevant.” This life will end one way or another, to be followed by judgment and the revelation of who we have become and who we really are. For all who are alive today, the ‘End’ can just be a heartbeat and a single breath away. For some, the ‘End’ may come through an unforeseen death, for others the result of persecution, and still others the result of catastrophe. But for all, the advice was and remains the same. Confident hope, joyful anticipation and patient endurance spell not merely survival but victory and salvation.

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