Sunday, November 18, 2012

The apocalypse of the past

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time B
St. Lawrence Catholic Campus Center at the University of Kansas
18 November 2012
Year of Faith

Jesus told his disciples that he doesn't know when the world will end.  Even he, who through his power as Wisdom incarnate could know all things, has chosen to limit his knowledge and to reserve to the Father the knowledge of the final apocalypse.  Even Jesus says he does not know the time or the hour.  Yet one thing we can be sure of is that people will not let this fact get in the way of a good story.  People who are unhappy with things like global warming, terrorism and war, politics, religious arguments and conflicts, and the rise of atheism will never stop reading the signs of the times in their particular way and predicting the end of the world.  Even though they have proven to be wrong every single time, and even though Jesus told us to stop predicting the end of the world, it seems irresistible.  Atheists like to caricature Christians as feeble minded.  That we are the ones afraid of the man in the sky and his final rapture.  Yet secularists are not immune to apocalyptic predictions either.  There have been plenty of scientists who predicted overpopulation would long since have destroyed the world.  Hollywood loves the apocalypse as well.  Aliens are always on the way to destroy us, were it not for the Men in Black, Neo and the Avengers to save us.  There are movies being made not only of angels and demons swooping down in the great battle for souls, but Al Gore makes his movies as well, predicting that global warming will destroy us all in our lifetimes.  Even though nobody does, everyone thinks they know how and where and when the world will end.

Why are apocalyptic stories so irresistible?  Why does Jesus use apocalyptic language?  Well, for one thing, apocalyptic stories teach us spiritual lessons in ways no other stories can.  Nobody knows when the world will end, but everyone knows that the time to get ready is now. Everyone knows that the things we put off until tomorrow are the things that are most likely to be left undone.  Everyone knows that 'carpe diem' is a better life's motto than 'why do today what you can put off until tomorrow.'  It does nobody any good to pretend that we will live forever, when we will not, or that life is longer than it really is.  Whether or not you believe in God or fear God, and whether or not the apocalyptic story you're paying attention is about nuclear destruction, aliens or the rapture, apocalyptic stories work.  They deliver spiritual and moral truths.  Jesus uses apocalyptic stories because it really is true that actions have consequences.  That what we do today has a major impact on what we can and will choose tomorrow, and that there is indeed a great cosmic battle going on with consequences into eternity.  What is more, there is a point of no return for each one of us, a point where we either become the person we always wanted to become or we don't. There is a point for all of us when we run out of chances for do-overs, and we have to admit that we are who we are, nothing more.  The reality is that these decisive moments are much closer to us than we dare to admit. That, my friends, is why apocalyptic stories work.  Because they are spiritually and morally true stories.

Yet none of this is to say that the apocalyptic stories of the Bible are only spiritually useful and not based in material or historical reality.  Especially when Jesus is repeating the apocalypse of the prophet Daniel, he is describing something that is taking place, or is about to take place, immediately in the time of those to whom he is talking.  When Jesus goes apocalyptic, He is not just forwarding the apocalyptic story, He is fulfilling the story.  Jesus is the apocalypse.  He is the unveiling of all things as they really are.  Jesus tells his disciples that they are about to see THE GREAT COSMIC BATTLE OF ALL TIME as He goes behind enemy lines in His passion, proceeds all the way to the gates of hell, and emerges victorious with his angels and saints through a bodily Resurrection that real historical disciples and witnesses will be able to see with their eyes and touch with their hands.  The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus won the decisive and final battle once and for all, and that victory is waiting to be extended to the ends of the cosmos.  Jesus is not telling mythical apocalyptic stories for some minimal spiritual benefit for his disciples. He is preparing them to be the witnesses of the true and lasting apocalypse, and of the great battle and victory that is more than ever was or ever will be.

For us, then, when we hear apocalytpic stories, we look not only to the future but we remember the apocalypse of the past - the unveiling of how things really are and the victory that always will be, through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus.  We then look to the present time, as to how we might extend this great apocalypse and victory over sin and death in the time and circumstances of our own lives.  Finally, knowing that the kingdom of God is already fully among us, we move forward into that unknown day and hour not scared that the apocalypse will surprise us or scare us, but with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love.    

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