Among the many memories of my youth I clearly remember the moment when it first dawned on me that when I died the world would go on happily without me. The thought came as an unpleasant shock, which no one else seemed particularly interested in sharing with me.
‘When I die the world will go on – without me!’ I was shaken to my foundations. It didn’t seem right – it didn’t seem fair – and the thought of a world without me in it didn’t seem possible. The idea of dying was bad enough, a humiliation, but that my family and friends would go on contentedly without me was unthinkable.
It is fortunate that growing up resolves all those puzzling childhood dilemmas. Of course I will die one day, of course the world will go on after me, as it did before me, and then, one day the world, too, will grow old and die.
Human eras come and go, followed by new eras. Human cultures have arisen and fallen. In our history lessons we have all given attention, for instance, to the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. The Dark Ages came and went, followed by feudalism, followed by monarchies, followed by the Enlightenment. Communism and Fascism have come and gone. Human days and times are simply our human ways of measuring and denoting change.
There are moments, periods and events in which God’s time intersects with human time. This is true not only socially and historically but individually and personally as well. Jesus and His disciples are about to experience such an interfacing between God’s time and human time.
What is our Christian response to these events are they apocalyptic or personal, when it seems that our world is crashing down around us?
Standing back and looking at the big picture let me first call your attention to the fact that life goes on.
A teenage girl may feel life for her is over because the boy she’s infatuated with has found another girl and is no longer totally interested in her. Still, life goes on. A college student may find that he is not as intelligent as he once thought himself to be. Others, he discovers, are smarter and more intelligent, getting better grades than he has scored. Still, life goes on. An entrepreneur may face the fact that his or her company will fail. A scientist may learn that what was discovered for the benefit of humankind is now being employed for its destruction. A president may find that a war entered upon for good reasons has ended in disaster at the cost of numberless lives and countless human miseries. Efforts to control gun ownership, illegal immigration, the drug trade, and all manner of vices can result in terrible unintended consequences. The list of failed human endeavors, nobly conceived and ignobly ended, is seemingly endless. And still, life goes on.
That, it seems to me, is the first response of a Christian to all that appears to be apocalyptic in our lives. Christians have an advantage in dealing with these questions, the advantage of hope. We can have hope based on what Jesus Christ has done for us, and not only done in the distant past but also what He has done for us in our own personal lives.
The gospel, written 2000 years before modern science, gives its account of this moment and sounds like it’s on the right track: The sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Scientists have it all worked out. They tell us in great detail how all this will happen as the sun goes into decline, expands, and then, collapsing in on itself, explodes in an unimaginable conflagration. Everything else will, of course, go haywire. Planetary orbits and so on … distress, despair, disaster, destruction – the END!
Not so, asserts the gospel, confidently stepping beyond the limitations of science – not the end at all!
…then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory; then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.
Not only is it not the end it seems, reassuringly, to be a new beginning.
Firstly, it is the moment of the revelation of Jesus in all his glory. This truth should be the subject matter of a lifetime’s fruitful meditation. To see our Lord, to behold his face, to be able to discard our faith in favor of the clear vision of him who is our shepherd and redeemer!
Secondly, it is a moment of rescue, of salvation. Those of us who call ourselves disciples of the Son of Man, his chosen ones, his followers, who have a certain hope in his merciful love for us, will be gathered … from the four winds.
No need to be surprised at this. Is this not what a true shepherd does? Is it not God’s task to gather the flock and to save it from destruction? Is this not what he always promised? And no need to be surprised also, as the Psalms say, that his enemies will be blown away like chaff in the wind.
Clearly today the readings look forward to this moment of the dissolution of the world and the second coming of the Master. Just count the number of times the word will is used – and each time it is used with the force of a promise. The word of God has spoken and it will not pass away.
Today’s readings, because they are part of the wider apocalyptic writings of sacred scripture, use images, which announce the approach of the end. The disciples had read these images in the Old Testament and now they hear them from the lips of Jesus himself and the natural question, which comes to our minds too, came to their lips – When, Lord, when will all this happen?
This is a natural human question. Our minds like to join the dots, to make logical connections, which establish a timeline. Jesus, however, does not answer this question.
We might find it puzzling that Jesus would give us so many signs of the end and yet not be able to tell us when the end would come. On one level, of course, this has a positive dimension in that it allows that final moment to remain a present possibility for all of us. Knowing the moment of our own death could cause us endless anxiety or, perhaps, to leave our turning to God to our final moments.
My own meditation on the subject leads me to understand that the end of the world, in a sense, parallels the end of our own life. We too have signs of the end of our life – a heart attack here, a cancer scare there, a near miss on the roads, a bout of pneumonia, or simply a headache. These are all signs of our mortality and they grow more insistent the older we get.
So we know the signs, they are clear enough, but they don’t answer the question when, and so it is with the end of the world.
All we can do is be prepared. We must stand ready as we live our lives in full view of that door which stands always open to receive us, the door to eternal life. It may be today, it may even be now, that we are called to pass through that door.
So … when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates.
As we approach the end of the Church’s yearly liturgical cycle the question is put before us. It is one that we must face collectively. More importantly, however, is the fact that each one of us must face the question personally. What is the meaning of my life? What is the purpose of my life? When and how will my life end?
Today, as the saying goes, is the first day of the rest of your life. Tomorrow is yet another day of opportunity. Beginnings can be endings and endings can be beginnings. Beginning to live differently today ends the ways we lived yesterday and in the days of our past.
Maybe, then, it’s a good thing we don’t know what the future holds in store for us. Maybe it’s a great gift God is giving us, the gift of forming and shaping our destiny with His love here and now, rather than in some possible future. God has given us here and now realities, not just future possibilities. That, it seems to me, is something wonderful.