Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Final Curtain

Thirty Third Ordinary Sunday Year B

At almost every dinner, whether it’s the band or some reckless soul who braves the stage to croon out a karaoke piece, this timeless evergreen popularised by Frank Sinatra, is necessary staple, “My Way.” The lyrics of "My Way" tell the story of a man who, having grown old, reflects on his life as death approaches. What often strikes me about the song, which is understandable since I can’t remember the lyrics of most songs beyond the first few lines, is the first two lines,
“And now, the end is near
And so I face the final curtain”

Yes, indeed. “The end is near” and we are facing “the final curtain.” We are still a month away from the end of the year, but the Church’s liturgical year draws to a close next week with the Solemnity of Christ the King. The following Sunday, which is the First Sunday of Advent, begins a new year. At the end of every year, we all make of a bucket list of things to do: preparations for Christmas, spring cleaning, year-end shopping, cutting our losses, drawing up budgets, etc. The Church also invites us to consider something, something so important and urgent that it should always be placed at the top of our bucket-to-do-list. The Church invites us to contemplate what it means when the “end is near” and how we should “face the final curtain.” The problem is that the majority of Catholics don’t really think about this. Generally, life is business as usual. We seem to suffer from a corporate sense of denial.

If Catholics do actually start to think about the end times, it’s often not a very pleasant thing. 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 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 coronation ceremony of a king. 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. 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. The end is already here, but “not yet” - 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 and economic 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!

For us Catholics, 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. History has a reason and that reason is Jesus Christ and the world will transcend it’s very self through Christ. This is how we must “face the final curtain,” with hopeful expectation and joy. 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. Believe me, before the final curtain would be his best performance yet!

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