Thursday, November 15, 2012

It's the End ... Already but not yet

Thirty Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

I’m not sure if you still remember that disaster movie which hit the screens in 2009, the one simply entitled ‘2012’. The plot of the film, as the title suggests, revolves around one version of a set of beliefs regarding the end of world that was predicted to take place this year, on the 21st of December. (The clock is ticking!) It is regarded as the end-date of an over 5,000 year-long cycle in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar. There is a whole range of interpretations, from a New Age version that speaks of spiritual transformation to eschatological versions predicting the end of the world. According to the movie, the world will be inundated by a massive flood and reshaped by earthquakes that will pull continents asunder and reform new ones. I guess given Malaysia’s size and location, we won’t survive the floods. And if the movie is going to be a guide of any sort, running to the Himalayas would not help. Your best bet would be Africa.

You may be relieved to know that most astronomers and scientists have rejected the above proposals as pseudoscience and in fact present a distraction from more important concerns, such as global warming and loss of biological diversity.  This is not the first (and most likely would not be the last) prediction of how and when the world will meet its end. Theories on when and how the world might end have surfaced for centuries. Consider these, in 960 Bernard of Thuringia, calculated 992 as the most likely year for the world’s end. As the time approached, panic was widespread. The German astrologer Johann Stoffler predicted a catastrophic flood on February 20, 1524. Believers started constructing arks and a man was accidentally trampled to death. That year passed without any unusual rainfall. And who can forget the 16th century seer Nostradamus. The Frenchman favoured 1999 as the year of a Martian invasion. At the close of the second and the beginning of the third millennium, we saw a spiked increase in the number of apocalyptic cults who range from Jehovah witnesses to UFO cults proposing different dates and scenarios for the end. Some Catholics have also jumped on the bandwagon. We’ve had unauthenticated messages allegedly from our Blessed Mother, including the most recent one related the of the appearance of her image on a local hospital’s window pane.

Given the great confusion among many people with regards to the end times and Jesus’ Second Coming, compounded by both Evangelical Protestant theories, pseudo-science doomsday prophecies and alleged Marian related messages, a clarification is necessary to understand the Catholic position in this matter. Firstly, the belief in the Last Things, in Jesus’ Second Coming is a core and essential tenet of our Catholic Faith. It is not something we should dismiss as a myth. Every time we profess the creed, we affirm this truth in two distinct articles. In the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed which we recite every Sunday, we hear and recite the following statement of faith, “He (Jesus) will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.” At the very end of the Creed, we affirm, “I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” The Apostles Creed uses different words but adduces to the same events and truths. The Last things are thus spelt out – Jesus will come again, there will be judgment, resurrection of the body and then the final conclusion: for some it is heaven, and perhaps for others it is hell.

In today’s gospel, our attention would certainly be taken up by the cataclysmic signs mentioned, namely that “the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” With so much happening on a cosmic scale, one can certainly miss the point. The parable using metaphors taken from nature is the clue. “When you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.” It’s just like the fireworks that go off at the inauguration ceremony of a president. People are often distracted by the pyrotechnic display in the sky, failing to see or forgetting for a moment, that this isn’t the focus of the celebrations, just the trappings. Without wanting to generalise, I believe that the general attitude among millennialist Evangelical Protestants is one of preoccupation with the signs of the end times and how to interpret them. Part of the misunderstanding comes from an insistence on precision that arises from an overly literal interpretation of scriptural texts. The Catholic approach, on the other hand, has always been Christo-centric. In other words, the focus is Christ, the Coming of the Son of Man in glory and victory, the one who is “near” and in fact “at the gates.”

We should also not be preoccupied with predicting the date of Christ’s Second Coming. “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority.”(Acts 1:7) To understand the Catholic position calls for understanding the Greek word ‘parousia’ (lit. ‘a being near’), used to describe the Second Coming of Christ. The word has several meanings, including coming, arrival or personal presence. First, the term was used in ancient times to describe the impending visit of the King to the city. But it also referred to his presence at the gates of the city. Thirdly, it could also mean the presence of the king in the midst of its inhabitants. The three meanings were not mutually exclusive. To an English speaker, it is indeed befuddling that such a term could include all three senses – past, present and future. Thus, the choice of the word in Greek is most illuminating to help us understand the Coming of Christ can speak of the reality of Christ having arrived (his first coming among men), his presence in our midst as well as his coming again in glory in the future to judge the living and the dead. Time and space collapses with this critical intervention of God in human history. We are living in the end times. But  already and not yet’ - that is the end is already here, but it has yet to be consummated.

The cataclysmic signs that accompany the end should never be a reason for fear but always one of hope. The signs indicate an undoing of creation in anticipation of a re-creation. What these forces destroy is not goodness or life, but rather the power of evil and sin which has soiled the harmony of creation. Destruction comes before perfection. But a greater problem that can be perceived today is not the fact that many Catholics are stricken and crippled by fear of the end times and the signs that accompany it. On the contrary, many Catholics have grown dull and immune to this event. Today, Catholics experience a different kind of cataclysmic upheaval – where our secure world seems to be put to the test on a daily basis. Perhaps, every experience of rejection, or suffering, death or loss, deprivation and emptiness is perceived as a catastrophe. Our concerns over money, success at work or in school, health, release from addiction, political situation of the country, job security, status and recognition, crisis in family or relationships are taken to be personal signs of the end of the world.  We are so blinded by our fear of these signs, that we sometimes fail to see the urgency of conversion and that “the coming of the Son of Man…with great power and glory” is upon us.

The Catholic approach to the end times (aka Eschatology) is perhaps less thrilling and provocative. It does not sensationalise the event, neither does it try to demythologise the message of the Bible and trivialise its significance. It does not generate panic or cause people to sell their houses and gather on hillsides waiting for the announced end. It seeks to balance a lot of notions that often hold certain truths in tension. What it does is to strengthen faith, unveil hope and challenge every person to a deeper conversion as they face the setbacks, losses and tragedies of daily life. Death, suffering and destruction are not the end, Christ is!

At the end of the day, we will never be certain when the world will really come to end. We won’t even be sure that the signs are really signs of the end times and not just natural cataclysmic events arising from shifting continental plates and changing weather conditions. We can't seem to make sense of the proliferation of alleged apparitions. We can’t even say for certain at this point whether the image that has appeared on the glass panel is our Lady herself heralding the end times. All these may seem pressing but Pope Benedict XVI reminds us that both the search for the Truth and its final outcome should never distract us from three certainties which should always remain our foci.
The first certainty is that Jesus is Risen and is with the Father and thus is with us forever. And no one is stronger than Christ. We are consequently safe, free of fear.
Secondly, we are certain that Christ is with me. My faith in him gives me the hope that the future is not darkness in which no one can find his way. Christ's light is stronger and therefore we live with a hope that is not vague, with a hope that gives us certainty and courage to face the future.
Lastly, we are convinced that Christ will return as Judge and Saviour. Therefore, we must be accountable to him for our every action and decision.

Last thing about the Last Things, the return of Christ will be the fulfillment of his promise that the world will reach perfection, not through the actions and plans of men, but through the transforming power of God’s love. The world will transcend it’s very self through Christ. History moves toward a steady goal. It is moving to a climax when “time shall be no more.” History has a reason and that reason is Jesus Christ. Christ is the central figure of all history. He is the Lord of History, the past, the present and the future. And so we as Christians should not cower in fear but joyfully welcome the day when Christ returns – it is “already (here) but not yet”. Jesus Christ has come to inaugurate the final Hour of man’s history. He will return in triumph to fulfill God’s eternal purpose with all of creation. And that will be a marvel to behold!

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