Luke 21:25-28, 34-36
Jesus said to his disciples: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”... “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap. For that day will assault everyone who lives on the face of the earth. Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent and to stand before the Son of Man.”
My very small off-campus apartment quickly became a refuge for friends who didn’t like the idea of being alone during those days and weeks following September 11. And even after work and classes had resumed, New York City felt like a different place.
I was living in New York City, a poor, starving doctoral student at Fordham University, when the World Trade Center and Pentagon were attacked September 11, 2001. Once news of the terrorist attacks had reached us, everything came to a stop. Television reports—hard to come by at first, since most of the local networks had broadcasted from the top of the twin towers—became the center of everyone’s attention. My very small off-campus apartment quickly became a refuge for friends who didn’t like the idea of being alone during those days and weeks following September 11. And even after work and classes had resumed, New York City felt like a different place. For at least a few months, New York City was a positively friendly place—the ordinary, no-nonsense, mind-your-own-business-and-don’t-make-direct-eye-contact New Yorkers turned into a mass of outgoing, concerned, do-gooders who would have given even the friendliest group of Canadians or Midwesterners a run for their money. Ordinary tasks and concerns resumed, but now took place with a new appreciation for the precious commodities of life and safety.
It is extraordinary how crises, disasters, and near brushes with death can completely transform our perspective on life. One moment we are simply going about our daily routine, facing the usual problems and difficulties of the day—going to work, paying the bills, picking up the kids from school or soccer practice, making it to our meetings and appointments–and then we hear about a major tragedy, the death of a loved one, or we feel a sharp pain in our own chest—and all that seemed so important that day falls away. Our to-do list immediately becomes secondary, if not entirely trivial, in the face of a crisis of this kind, and what is taken for granted—all our activities and obligations, our life as we know it—is suddenly thrown into an entirely different perspective. Its fragility, its temporariness, even a certain kind of triviality to our tasks, is exposed in the face of a life-changing event, even as more fundamental values and a deeper meaning of things is revealed.
This should, I think, be something of the effect of Christ’s eschatological discourses—his sayings on the last things or the end times—that we have not only heard during the last weeks of the liturgical year, but also in today’s Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent. Christ’s discussion of signs and the coming of the Son of Man is meant to turn our hearts and minds to what is truly essential, to pluck us out of our ordinary, work-a-day world to recall that there are larger, ultimate spiritual realities to which we must be attentive.
Our Gospel passage for today, for instance, despite the presence of talk about the sun and moon and stars, the coming of the Son of Man, and our Lord’s insistence that “that day” (dies illa) will come upon all who live upon the earth, is actually part of a discourse that begins with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. This can leave us rather unclear as to what exactly Jesus is predicting.
Christ’s eschatological discourses, whether here in Luke chapter 21 or in parallel passages in Matthew 24 or Mark 13, make for difficult reading, for they are rich in an apocalyptic imagery whose meaning is both literal and spiritual, and whose full significance can only be understood against the background of a number of different passages of the Old Testament. What is worse, it is often difficult to determine whether Jesus is really talking about the last things—the end of the world in the full cosmological, eschatological sense of that phrase—or whether he is simply talking about the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, or just describing more broadly the ongoing spiritual challenges in the life of the Church and each individual Christian. Our Gospel passage for today, for instance, despite the presence of talk about the sun and moon and stars, the coming of the Son of Man, and our Lord’s insistence that “that day” (dies illa) will come upon all who live upon the earth, is actually part of a discourse that begins with Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. This can leave us rather unclear as to what exactly Jesus is predicting.
And, of course, among those who see Jesus predicting more than just the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem but the very end of the world, there have been a great number who have attempted to determine an exact chronology—even a precise date—for the end times. Joachim of Fiore predicted the end of the world would occur in 1260; Samuel Snow, a member of an American Baptist sect called the Millerites—now the Seventh-Day Adventists—predicted the world would end in 1844; Hal Lindsay, now in his 80’s and still a televangelist at Trinity Broadcasting, predicted the end of the world would take place in 2000; and most recently, Harold Camping made news with the prediction, complete with billboards and newspaper ads, that the end of the world would be May 21, 2011. To the embarrassment of all these prognosticators, the very fact that you and I are still going about our earthly business on November 29, 2015 is evidence that these folks have made a mistake—either they forgot to carry the one when they were doing their end-of-the-world math, they failed to interpret a particular sign correctly, or Jesus’ predictions of what is to happen at the end of time are not meant to provide us with historical and chronological facts.
It is, of course, this last that I think holds the truth of the matter. Our Lord’s words are not meant to give us merely practical or factual information, so that, for instance, we might continue about our lives with as little disruption as possible. Quite the opposite. Our Lord’s prophecy about trials and signs and the suddenness of His coming is to remind us of the ultimate meaning of things, to allow us—like New Yorkers after 9/11—to put our everyday work and the ordinary events of our lives into perspective–and in this case their proper and eternal perspective. All that surrounds us will end, and not only because we ourselves will in all likelihood experience death, but because this world itself will not last forever. All things will inevitably come to an end. All the powers of this world, all merely human plans and ambitions will eventually come to nothing, and we will be left with only those things which have eternal significance. We shall all eventually stand before the Son of Man, Christ Himself. We shall all face the righteous judge and confront the reality of our lives—who we really were, what we did with the gifts and graces that God had given us, how we blessed those around us, and how we worked for the glory of Him who made us.
Our daily lives can be a preparation for these last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—or we can allow our work and obligations to be a constant distraction from coming to terms with what our life is truly about. We can be vigilant and pray, or we can waste the time in constant amusement or constantly concerned and distracted by the anxieties of our present circumstances.
Our daily lives can be a preparation for these last things—death, judgment, heaven, and hell—or we can allow our work and obligations to be a constant distraction from coming to terms with what our life is truly about. We can be vigilant and pray, or we can waste the time in constant amusement or constantly concerned and distracted by the anxieties of our present circumstances. If we keep before us the fact that this world is passing away, we have made a significant step toward making the time fruitful. If we keep before our minds and regularly remind ourselves that our earthly home—not only the places where we live, but our careers, our reputations, our health, our finances—will all pass away, then we are much more likely to avoid being taken in by the goods of this world, which are at best temporary. We are more likely to orient ourselves to those goods and values that last and store up treasures for ourselves in heaven; to avoid sin and strive to grow in holiness; to undertake those small discomforts and mortifications that allow us to detach ourselves from earthly goods and to attach ourselves more fully and more intimately to God, the giver of all good things.
This is, I think, the chief reason why so many of the saints reminded themselves of their own mortality, why they coined phrases like “tempus fugit . . . memento mori” (“time flies . . . remember death”) and even kept around reminders of death—more than one saint is known to have kept a skull on their desk. Such things can seem morbid and macabre, but there is a wisdom in this tradition—by reminding ourselves of the fleetingness of life, we keep before ourselves those ultimate realities which are the very meaning of our life—that we are made for eternity and for God, and that everything we do on this earth holds within it an eternal significance—it either brings us closer to our eternal goal, or it draws us away from it.
The season of Advent, this season in which we wait not only for the coming of the Lord in Christmas, but his coming at the end of time, presents us with a perfect opportunity to consider eternity, to consider our lives as a whole, and to do some re-prioritizing, or at least to renew our resolutions to spiritual discipline, that we may use this time of expectation well. Now is the time to unburden our consciences with the Sacrament of Reconciliation; now is the time, with God’s grace, to re-double our efforts to cultivate virtue and to love all those around us, and to unite ourselves more fully in Word and Eucharist to our good and gracious God. May nothing prevent us from meeting the Lord with joy when he comes.