What to do at the Apocalypse?
A Sunday Reflection
By Fr. Ron
The end of the liturgical year always brings thoughts of our own end. It reminds us that we will die someday. It reminds us that the world as we know it will end someday. It tries to jolt us, shake us and get our attention.
The gospel, written 2000 years before modern science, gives its account of the moment of the end of the world: The sun will be darkened, the moon will lose its brightness, the stars will come falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.
Actually, it seems to be a pretty accurate description. Scientists have it all worked out. They tell us in great detail how all this will happen as the sun goes into decline, expands, and then, collapsing in on itself, explodes in an unimaginable conflagration. Everything else will, of course, go haywire. Planetary orbits and so on ... The result will be distress, despair, disaster, destruction - the END!
But that is not the final result the gospel foresees:
...then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory; then too he will send the angels to gather his chosen from the four winds, from the ends of the world to the ends of heaven.
Not only is it not a disastrous end. Our faith tells us it is a new beginning.
First, it is the moment of the revelation of Jesus in all his glory. This truth should be the subject matter of a lifetime's fruitful meditation. To see our Lord, to behold his face, to be able to discard our faith in favor of the clear vision of him who is our shepherd and redeemer – this is ecstasy!
Second, it is a moment of rescue, of salvation. Those of us who call ourselves disciples of the Son of Man, his chosen ones, who have a certain hope in his merciful love for us, will be gathered ... from the four winds.
No need to be surprised at this. Is this not what a true shepherd does? Is it not his task to gather the flock and to save it from destruction? Is this not what he always promised? And no need to be surprised also, as the Psalms say, that his enemies will be blown away like chaff in the wind.
Clearly today the readings look forward to this moment of the dissolution of the world and the second coming of the Master. Just count the number of times the word will is used. And each time it is used with the force of a promise. The word of God has spoken, and it will not pass away.
Today's readings, because they are part of the wider apocalyptic writings of sacred scripture, use images which announce the approach of the end. The disciples had read these images in the Old Testament. Now they hear them from the lips of Jesus himself. The natural question, which comes to our minds too, came to their lips - When, Lord, when will all this happen?
This is a natural human question. Our minds like to connect the dots, to make logical connections which establish a timeline. Jesus, however, does not answer this question because, in his human nature, he does not know the answer. But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.
We might find it puzzling that Jesus would give us so many signs of the end and yet not be able to tell us when the end would come. On one level, of course, this has a positive dimension in that it allows that final moment to remain a present possibility for all of us. Knowing the moment of our own death could cause us endless anxiety or, if we know the moment of our death, we might leave our turning to God to the last moment.
As I reflected on the meaning of the end of the world, I realized that in a sense, it parallels the end of our own life. We too have signs of the end of our life - a heart attack here, a cancer scare there, a near miss on the roads, a bout of pneumonia, or simply a headache. These many months of the Covid-19 pandemic have certainly alerted us to our susceptibility to disease. These are all signs of our mortality, and they grow more insistent the older we get.
So, we know the signs that we are growing old, they are clear enough. A middle-aged man certainly said to me: “I suddenly realized that I am closer to the end of my life than I am to the beginning of my life.” Yet these realizations still don't answer the question when my life will end. and so it is with the end of the world.
All we can do is be prepared. We must stand ready as we live our lives in full view of that door which stands always open to receive us, the door to eternal life. It may be today, it may even be now, that we are called to pass through that door.
So, what are we to do? How are we to prepare for Christ’s return, for our own death, for the end of our world?
Let me share a favorite story: There was once a wise old monk who was responsible for the formation of the younger monks. A young monk asked him: “Father, if you knew that today was your last day on earth, how would you live it?” The old monk thought carefully, then said: “I would rise early for my prayers, then I would wash my face and gave some breakfast, then I would do my work around the house and then make some time to study” The young monk was quick to reply: “But, Father, that is how you begin every day.” “Precisely,” said the old monk. “I live everyday as if it were my last.”
If you knew that the world would end tomorrow, how would you live this day? Would you do anything different from what you have planned? We should live every day as if it were our last. Live it fully. Live it faithfully. Live it by imitating the love, concern and service of Jesus. Then we don’t have to worry or be afraid.
So ultimately, how can we prepare for Christ’s return? We need to develop and treasure our relationship with him now. Then, when he finally returns, we will be so happy to see him.