Apocalypse! End of the World! What images or thoughts come to your mind as you hear these words? Fear? Frustration? I’ve had several conversations with people recently on topics related to these concepts. Some people talk about Nostradamus and how he predicted that the world would end in the not too distant future. I’ve even heard the year 2023 thrown around as when he predicted it would end. Of course, if that date is true, it means that I still have 15 years of sinning before I shape up and get ready for the coming of the Lord. Other people see things like global warming and an ever-increasing need for fossil fuels as leading to the end of the world. They say that if we don’t switch to cleaner, renewable fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions we will bring about the end of the world. Others are concerned about the global terrorist threat and the threat posed by rogue, radical Islamist movements acquiring nuclear weapons. They see the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as key components to defeating the possibility of the third world war being the charm, if you will. And, while I have no doubt that all of that could bring about the end of the world, I always have to caution people that this is not exactly what we hear in the readings this time of year.
Yet, even as I make that statement, I know that there’s a great deal of hesitancy in Catholic clergy to actually talk about this. Our evangelical brothers and sisters make up for it, however, since some of them seen almost unhealthily fixated on the end of the world. I remember sitting down in Dubuque during college and watching a husband and wife team that would read a passage, usually either from the book of Daniel or the book of Revelation, (You know, those scary books of the bible) and then they would show how world events are directly related to them. Just to give one example that I remember from their program, there is an image of a dragon awaiting the birth of a child. In their interpretation, the dragon was President Clinton and the mother was any mother considering abortion. I was glad to learn in my scripture class that we didn’t share this one-for-one, belief that images in scripture point to concrete people nowadays.
We tend to believe that the images are timeless, that a one-for-one identification of these prophesies is, in general, more detracting from the meaning than adding to it. So, for instance, we hear in the gospel today that “"Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.
There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” A fundamentalist would say that the nations Jesus is clearly talking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the community of nations that were brought to fight against them. They would point to the tsunami that happened a few years ago in Malaysia because of an earthquake and the resulting famine and plagues there, as well as elsewhere, as mighty signs.
I think this is part of the reason that Catholic priests don’t like to talk about this topic at all. We focus on our own mortality or sin and avoid the topic of end times altogether. But, what should we say instead? If I read the gospel right, we shouldn’t be so focused on future events and signs that we lose sight of today. We must pay attention to Jesus when he says, “many will come in my name, saying, 'I am he,’ and 'The time has come.’ Do not follow them! When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end." We shouldn’t be so afraid of the end of the world that we lose sight on today, on the preparation that we can do today. It’s like the distance runner who becomes so fixated on the end of the race that he forgets to look down and notice the pothole right in front of him. We should be constantly prepared for the God whose coming won’t be cloaked in shadows. When God comes it will be as clear as the sun rising in the East. We, Christians, shouldn’t be afraid of that thought. As the prophet Malachi said, “for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” We have been shown the love of the Son of God who has healed out sins and invites us into a new relationship with God as our Father. Now is the time to repent. Don’t put it off to some fictional time invented by a seer. Now is the time to have reverent love for the God who first loved us and calls each of us by name. Now we are in the end times, a time of hope and reconciliation. Don’t be terrified. By your perseverance you will secure your lives.