?Every year at about this time, as the holly and the ivy appear at the mall, and our old friend the Chia Pet returns to television, our liturgical readings turn to Eschatology, the consideration of the Last Things. We live in a world full of people (and media!) who tell us we ought to be afraid– afraid of disease, afraid of terrorists, afraid of what we eat, afraid of people different from ourselves, and afraid that the End Is Near. Fear drives our politics, convinces us to surrender our freedom, causes us to act contrary to our faith, which is essentially hopeful. And this particular set of readings doesn’t help, frankly.
??Our first reading from Malachi is a prophesy of God’s final judgment. So what do we know about Malachi? Well, nothing. We don’t know who he was, when he wrote, or precisely to whom. Still, we can look at what he wrote, and have some clue what he was talking about. Much of what he wrote was, like this section, a promise of God’s ultimate justice. That’s really what the final judgment is all about– the triumph of justice. Why do you suppose, then, that so many Christians look toward the coming of judgment with fear and loathing? The early Christian community looked for the coming of God’s reign with great joy. Maybe the reason is that the early Christians were struggling and persecuted, and today we’re a little too comfortable and mainstream.
? Our Gospel reading from Luke is a taste of Apocalyptic writing. The words are put in the mouth of Jesus, but Luke is writing both for and from a community that is experiencing the beginnings of persecution. Most prose like this is conveniently contained in the Book of Revelation, but periodically you can find examples that have escaped to other parts of the Bible. Some Christian traditions would have us pour over these texts looking for clues to our own approaching end. But that’s not the Catholic understanding of how Apocalyptic literature works.
?An apocalyptic passage begins with a retelling of recent history, in the form of dire predictions. For the original readers, this past-as-future would lend credibility to what followed. They would see themselves and their situation in references to wars, pestilence, or the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Again, it’s a reference to recent events, written as a prediction of the future.
?It concludes with a reassurance that God is about to step in to bring justice and victory. Just as the situation looks most dark and hopeless, God will punish the wicked and send messengers to rescue the faithful. Rather than inspiring dread and paranoia, apocalyptic writings are supposed to be encouraging and hopeful. Of course, that only works if we can see ourselves at the turning point of history, where evil is vanquished and God’s reign is being established.
?Taken in the context of the whole Gospel, this apocalyptic stuff is a bit conflicting. On the one hand, the Gospel says, “You won’t know the exact day or hour, and you won’t be given any sign, because God’s reign comes like a thief in the night.” On the other hand, these passages seem to say, “here are the signs to watch out for– here’s how you’ll know the end is near.” So what do we do, and how do we live?
?Occasionally one of our Evangelical brothers and sisters will ask me if I believe we’re living in the End Times. And I always respond, “yes, of course!” Because for us, those “end times” stretch from the Ascension of Christ into heaven, until he returns. These are the end times, they’ve always been the end times, and tomorrow’s gonna be the end times, too. Do I think the end is coming soon? It doesn’t matter.
?The fact is I could be run over by a bus crossing the street tomorrow, and for me, that’s the end of time. Am I going to live my life differently because Gabriel’s trumpet could blow tomorrow, than I’d live because I could be hit by a bus tomorrow? No, of course not. Life as we experience it today is a fleeting gift for any of us. We ought to be living every day prepared to Christ’s return– either his return to us, or our return to him.
?Now, that doesn’t mean you should run out Monday morning and cash in your 401K plan. We still have to plan for the future. We still have to work to establish justice in the world. We still have to come to the aid of the poor. We still have to heal each others’ brokenness. God’s reign is begun among us, but it’s not here in its fullness. We don’t bring God’s reign, despite the popular hymn “City of God.” We don’t build it. God does. But God asks us to cooperate with the construction. Malachi and Luke wrote these apocalyptic passages, not to inspire fear in their people, and not to make them passive as they await rescue. They wrote to help their people– and us– see that they– and we– are at a critical turning point in history. God is at work in our world, building God’s reign. Our task is to cooperate with it’s approach, living lives that show we believe it. Fear, passivity, and confusion won’t do it. What’s needed is trust, action, and a clear sense of our own mission to usher in God’s reign of justice and peace for all people.
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