The story is told of a woman who left instructions for her children that when she died they should place on her grave a parking meter that read: “Time expired.” As we rapidly approach the end of the church’s year, "time expired" is also our theme.
This time of year as the days shorten, leaves fall and the wind blows colder, the church turns her attention to the last things, the end of time. The readings are filled with apocalyptic visions and warnings.
The word apocalypse simply means an uncovering, a stripping to essentials. It is not a prediction of the future, an excuse to judge others or to attempt to escape the needs of the world here and now. It is the consolation that God offers to us in our present needs/sufferings. (Our discomfort with the upheavals of apocalypse may be a measure of the comfort we take in things as they now are.)
Many passages in the Bible are apocalyptic in nature. Usually they were written during a time when the chosen people were being persecuted; as was the case with the reading from Daniel, written in 165 B.C. Daniel basically says: Remain faithful; we will be the victors, but it will get ugly before its gets beautiful.
This type of passage reminds me a poem by Yeats where he writes:
Turning and turning in widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, / The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned; / The best lack all conviction, while the worse / Are full of passionate intensity. / Surely some revelation is at hand; / Surely the second coming is at hand.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus foretells persecution, sacrilege, wars and great suffering such as has not been from the beginning of God’s creation. In today’s Gospel this same vision becomes more cosmic: The sun will darken; stars will fall from the sky; powers in heaven will be shaken. While Jesus announces that only God knows the time, he also assures his listeners that “this generation will not pass away until all of these things will have taken place.”
That prediction probably came from Mark rather than Jesus because Mark’s church was being persecuted and he wanted to give his young Christians hope that they would prevail.
The early church struggled to define its understanding that Jesus would return in the immediate future. As years passed the believers died without seeing the anticipated return of the Messiah, the Son of Man. Those early Christians grappled with what it meant to live faithfully in the indefinite and perhaps lengthy interim, without the deus ex machina of the second coming that would rescue them from “this present age of evil.”
Mark’s generation needed to hear this apocalyptic message, as does ours. An apocalyptic vision helps us recognize that God’s forces are fighting for us. It inspires us not to give up when we are overwhelmed and tempted to quit. It helps us to yearn for Christ with the ancient plea, maranatha, come lord Jesus.
Our own age is not without its apocalyptic-like events—9/11, Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami or the recent tragedy evoked by Hurricane Sandy.
All of those events touched each of us in some way—challenging our faith or nourishing our hope. Christians today, I suggest, must better understand the meaning/nature of Christian hope. Human beings instinctively hope. It is part of human nature to yearn, to search for fullness of life, to create a future about which people can be enthusiastic. We realize theses hopes in interaction with the world.
At the same time, hope is the most basic attitude of Christian faith. A person has faith in what he/she hopes for. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Hope is rooted in faith and the proof of belief. It is through faith that one finds the path to true life, but it is only hope that keeps us on that path.
Christian hope is nourished by the vision of “new heavens and a new earth,” where righteousness and justice are at home. Hope is a theological virtue in the sense that it relates us to God and the divine purpose to creation. In the scope of the “last things,” the apocalyptic vision is as Catholic as God’s creation. New heavens and a new earth reveal a transfigured home for God’s dwelling with what God has created and loved.
Hope feeds on the vision of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Hope casts us into the future; hope connects us, through the eyes of faith, with that which is yet to come.
Hope enables the practice of Christian love in a world where suffering prevails; a practice of justice in a world defined by unjust civic and social structures and conditions.
Hope allows us to live the Sermon on the Mount; hope allows us to pray. Finally, Jesus assures us that the end is not imminent (as Mark suggested). The challenge for us as faithful Christians is to face these challenges with courage now; to testify to Jesus’ name now; to open ourselves now to the wisdom given us by the Lord.
Not knowing when our individual time will expire or apocryphal events will occur is not meant to frighten a person—unless they need to be frightened to live a good life—but it should motivate us to be prepared. It should give us hope in any type of trial; that our time and trial “now” is temporary, but eternity is forever.
Embracing this way of living gives us hope and confidence, that no matter when the "end time" comes, our lives are secure.
All of this is captured in a passage from the 14th century spiritual writer and mystic Thomas à Kempis: “Truly at the day of judgment we shall not be examined on what we have read or what we know, but by what we have done; not how well we have spoken, but how religiously we have lived and how well we have hoped.”
John P. Schlegel, S.J.