So many things seem to be on the fast train to hell at the moment that it came into my head to look into the Apocalypse. Not some “apocalyptic” film or novel – the Apocalypse, the Book of Revelation, the last book of the New Testament and, therefore, the conclusion of Holy Scripture.
It’s understandable that people don’t pay much attention to the Apocalypse. Most of us vaguely know that it says someday it’s all going to break bad, cosmically bad. Who wants to think about that?
Despite being God’s last written communication to us, for a casual reader, it’s a strange text, not easy to take in. Some of the more overheated evangelicals relish its wilder side, and “the Rapture” too, of course, and much else that can’t help making a sober Catholic wary.
But that’s far from being the whole story of the Apocalypse. I’ve often disagreed with public stances of South Africa’s Anglican Bishop Desmond Tutu. He’s absolutely right, though, in what he’s said about Revelation: “I’ve read the end of the book. . . .We win.” More accurately, God wins, but if you think you’re in – or at least hope someday to be in – His fold, it comes to much the same thing.
Terrible events are symbolically foreshadowed before this world ends in the Apocalypse, even more terrible than COVID-19, rioting, and presidential elections. If you think we have it rough now, look at the deadly plagues, rampaging Beast, the cosmic Dragon, and Satanic assaults that Scripture talks about as it wraps up. It makes Tolkien look like an amateur.
But the Book of Revelation, by implication, also shows that all the things we’re suffering, almost everywhere on the globe in 2020, are not only inevitable earthly ills. They’re part and parcel of a larger, spiritual “war in Heaven” with “principalities and powers.”
In that light, it was heartening to see recently that two American bishops – Hying of Madison and Listecki of Milwaukee – led a Eucharistic procession up a main street to the Wisconsin state capital building. At least 2000 people followed. Their message was that “only Jesus can heal our wounds.”
The whole Bible and the entirety of the Christian tradition say precisely that. And however much the Fundamentalists and militant secularists alike have made “Jesus saves” look like a simplistic and pious abstraction in the face of human complexity, it has the singular advantage of simply being true.
And practical. Conservative Christians often quote John Adams these days: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” This was not merely some soundbite – before sound bites actually existed – by a politician. Adams, like all the Founders, believed that this was a practical truth, the foundation for everything and, therefore, ignored only at great peril.
It bears repeating now when virtually no one, not even Catholics, believe it.
We’re almost all Pelagians now. We think we can save ourselves, even as all the evidence mounts that as we grow less religious we’re also less able just to co-exist, to converse peacefully about how to order our lives together, to practice even minimal decency and forgiveness, forbearance and courtesy to one another face-to-face – let alone online.
People laugh at the notion of “heresies,” but heresies such as Pelagianism were condemned not because people in the past were stupid and had nothing better to do than spin theological theories. Heresies were named and rejected because day-to-day experience showed they’re not clever or daring or creative. It showed they’re seductive and misleading and destructive.
Since God has been expelled from modern life, we’ve been trying a crazy experiment in group self-help – Pelagianism in the public square. Christians have crucial roles to play and responsibilities to carry out, to be sure, in private as well as in our common life. We need to fight tirelessly for many truths, but our salvation, especially now, will not come from politics. We need something of a different order, as the Wisconsin bishops saw. Other bishops should follow their lead.
We talk a lot about “respect” towards everyone these days precisely because we don’t really practice it. Many of the people who talk the most about respect seem to have no problem canceling others.
It may seem a stretch, but I trace this back to abortion. Fr. James Martin, for example, read a predictable litany of the marginalized at the DNC, mentioning only in passing, amid a dozen other groups, children in the womb.We’re a nation that has blithely slaughtered 60 million innocents over the past 50 years. By any sane reckoning, that’s bound to have serious consequences. But for many, it’s just another item in a list of “inclusion.” It’s no wonder that we lash out at people walking around; compared to the slaughter of the innocents, what’s a little “canceling” for minor slips or “racism.”
By the way, you don’t get a pass if you’re passionately pro-life yet practice the same disrespect towards others that they show towards you. Annihilating political opponents – not refuting or persuading or defeating them – is downstream from the slaughter of the innocents.
Beware of every public exaggeration, too, which is now something much worse than media seeking market share. Our lives are awash in expressions that mean nothing or wildly overstate the case, with the goal of agitating us for ideological reasons. A temporary rise in COVID-19 cases as life reopens is a “spike.” (Ouch!) An economic downturn means finances are “in freefall.” (Really, if you looked at a chart, the line would go straight down?)
All such prevarication and encouragement of still greater turmoil is of the Dragon.
In the Apocalypse, “Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world” will be present – and victorious over the Dragon and all his minions – at the end of that world. On the other side of tribulation and death, he will reveal things hidden since the beginning of the world. “We win.”
And He’s at work even now. It may not make living through the present much easier. But that’s ultimately reality. And we’ll find ourselves in reality again, someday.
*Image: The Blessing of the Wheat by Jules Breton, 1857 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]. The scene depicts a Eucharistic procession in Courrières, the painter’s hometown, during the rogation days leading up to the Feast of the Ascension.