Many years ago, a rather businesslike friend asked me to write out a conspectus of Christianity on one half-page of foolscap. His atheism was wavering, all on its own, so there was no point arguing with it. I was trying to express my understanding of the Christian outlook in a positive way. A recent convert myself (first into the Anglican church), I thought the exercise might be to my own benefit. I selected three Bible passages, and put them under headings.
Under the heading “Old Testament” I copied from Isaiah:“And to old age I am he; and to hoar hairs will I carry; I have made, and I will bear; even I will carry, and will deliver you.”Under the heading “New Testament” I copied from Matthew:“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”And under the heading “Futurity” I copied from the Apocalypse:“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last. I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore, and have the keys of hell and of death.”
Gentle reader will try the exercise himself, before criticizing my effort. It cost me, as I recall, the better part of a night’s work, thirty-six years ago. Had I to do it again, I might try to make my handwriting smaller.
My lay sermon today deals technically with the third part, but is not fastidious. Really I am dealing with all three.
On my own website I posted, Tuesday, a piece entitled “Endtiming.” It is on the bad popular habit of indulging cheap and shopworn apocalyptic scenarios. Much of this is mere media blather: disaster porn on impending political, economic, social, and environmental mega-catastrophes. Each invites, “So what?”
The disintegration of, say, the United States would not be the end of the world. Nor would be a large rise in sea level. For people living in the affected areas I could foresee various inconveniences, but life would go on. Worse things have happened on this planet.
More worrying, to my mind, is the decay in apocalyptic thinking among Catholics (and other Christians) today. A kind of gnostic or oriental fatalism is flooding back into our Church, enfeebling the theological virtue of Hope. A torpid vanity underlies this: the belief that for our sins we have somehow earned divine retribution on the full cosmic scale; that we have, without even trying very hard, “forced God’s hand.”
Chastisements we can anyway expect, from the operation of nature alone. For our sins, we certainly deserve retribution. But when we escalate from immediate events, to the full scale of the End Time, we are pulling a Pilate. We are washing our hands. In effect, we raise ourselves above equality with God, then take no responsibility for our actions.
It is like the national debt: nothing should be done, because nothing can be done. The only task remaining is to watch for the day: to calculate when it will finally engulf us.
Apocalypse, from ἀπo-καλύπτω, the Greek for “uncovering.” To start with we have the conception backwards or inside-out. We imagine a covering, instead; something descending upon our world, as opposed to a discovery of what lies invisible within it.
Let me recall for a moment a Canadian apocalypse I have seen. It is the uncovering of the land beneath the winter snows; the sudden explosion of life in the springtime, in grass and leaf, flower and fruit, lambing and birdsong. A hidden kingdom spontaneously emerges, that lay within our world as seed.
Suppose, now, we had always lived in winter, and never seen this spring. Suppose now we witnessed the incomprehensible, the apocalyptic, opening of the first flower.
How to describe this to the winter dwellers? How to convey colors they had never seen? Or begin to portray the scent, the touch, of each spring creature? One might begin: “There is a hidden kingdom beneath the snow; it will come.”
Let us now consider this as an act of divine retribution – against the winter, against the deathly coldness of it, against the glacial accumulation of dead ice. We may further imagine it beginning as the melt, the flood, the inundation; as the catastrophe that ends the winter.
This notion came to mind while re-reading and reviewing for my purposes the so-called “Olivet discourse” or “little apocalypse” of Christ (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21). Tireless scholarship has been devoted to quite perverse ends in its interpretation. Attempts are made to construct a timeline out of remarks that seem to me to have been purposefully designed to defeat any timeline.
This “discourse,” or prophecy, is again and again treated as mere prognostication. This is not surprising, for Christ was apparently replying to very temporal questions from His disciples: “Tell us, when will the end of the world happen? What signs should we look for, when it is approaching?”
Christ gives the parable of the budding figs.
We ask natural human questions, from our winter world of time, while trying to imagine what we cannot imagine. The “when” is almost everything to us; it is almost nothing to Christ. He replies in an astounding blaze of prophetic poetry, yielding line after line that has remained fixed in Christian and in literary memory down the centuries.
In what C.S. Lewis called “the most embarrassing verse in the Bible,” Christ says it will all happen within the lifetime of those living. But who says we ever were, or ever will be dead?