Thirty-Third Sunday: The Apocalyptic Now

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DN 12:1-3; PS 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11; HEB 10:11-14, 18; MK 13:24-32

We come now to the end.  Next Sunday will be the last Sunday of the Church year, Christ the King.  This Sunday we read about the end of time.

Our Gospel, it must be said, is somewhat confusing.  Perhaps it is meant to be.  Jesus talks about “after the time of distress.”  He says, “the sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven.”  Then the Son of Man will come “in the clouds with great power and glory.”  It is clear he will be the master of the end of time.  It is not so clear what exactly the end of time will be.

He tells us to “take the fig tree as a parable”: its leaves are a sign of summer.  So too there will be signs that Jesus is coming.  But he concludes “as for that day or hour, nobody knows it” – not even the Son.

He says “all these things will have taken place” “before this generation has passed away.”  But what are “all these things”?  What is “this generation”?  Was Jesus wrong?

***

A little context helps.  Before our reading, Jesus has already been talking about the end for some twenty verses.  He talks about horrible things that will happen – “but the end is not yet.”  There will be many “false Christs and false prophets.”

Here is one way to read all of this: the Apocalypse is not about a “then” separate from our “now.”  It is not that the world is “stable,” and then at some point something abnormal will happen.

Rather, it is that the world constantly teeters on the edge.  He is coming soon.  All the horrible things that happen – as Friday evening in Paris – are not a break from normal.  They are normal: a world teetering on the edge, and constantly reminding us that Christ alone is the End.

He will come one day.  But every day – both “that generation” and ours – are days of expectation.

***

As an example of this, consider how our first reading, from Daniel, frames our Psalm.  By “framing” I mean it puts a context “around” the Psalm so that we notice new things.

The Psalm is beautiful, but normal enough.  “And so my heart rejoices, my soul is glad; even my body shall rest in safety.”  “O Lord, it is you who are my portion and cup.”

But the reading that precedes it is apocalyptic.  “There is going to be a time of great distress, unparalleled since nations first came into existence.”  Angels will war.  “Michael will stand up, the great prince who mounts guard over your people.”  Those who have learned virtue “will shine as brightly as the vault of heaven . . . as bright as stars for all eternity.”

After reading that, “even my body shall rest in safety” no longer sounds like a sleepy Saturday afternoon, but a promise of protection in a time of chaos far surpassing any terrorist attack.  “God, I take refuge in you” is no longer a sweet pat on the head, but a response to real terror – and a promise of divine intervention.  In the context of Daniel’s apocalypse, “You will show me the path of life, the fullness of joy in your presence” changes from a saccharine hope that everything will be just fine to a heroic passage through the gates of hell.

But the best part is that we can – we should – read the Psalm that way now.  The terror is not yet upon us – but God’s protection and his promises are.  The apocalypse reminds us to see our every day on the brink of eternity.

***

Above all, it reminds us to see our life under God’s protection.  Daniel promises that “all those whose names are found written in the Book” will be protected.  It is not a matter of our awesome strength, but of God’s providence.  We are safe because we have been chosen – because of his action, not ours.  He will teach us – and so “those who have learned will shine brightly” – but our trust is in him, not ourselves.

As we come to the end of the Church year, we come too to the end of Hebrews.  And we see Jesus “forever at the right hand of God; now [now!] he waits until his enemies are made his footstool.”  Our hope is in him.  Our help is in the name of the Lord.  Jesus is the victor of the cosmic battle.

The Greek word “apocalypse,” and its Latin translation “revelation,” both mean that the veil that covers reality has been pulled away.  This week we get a glimpse of what’s really going on – not just at the end of time, but in our apocalyptic now.

How do you remind yourself that heaven is more real than earth?

eric.m.johnston

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