November 13, 2016
“And what sign will there be when all these things are about to happen?” (Lk 21:7)
What are we to do with apocalyptic literature today? Such books as Daniel, Revelation, and sections of the four Gospels such as today’s reading may strike us as peculiar, especially if there are many-headed beasts involved. But these writings were never the products of pure fantasy, unmoored from present realities. Both natural and man-made disasters have been humanity’s lot for as long as we can remember. Earthquake and flood, war, insurrection, famine and plague – these are not foreign to people of our generation. Blood flowing “as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles” (Rv 14:20) is not such a far-fetched image of our times. Persecution and hardship was the formative environment of the early Church, just as it is the present reality for many in our world at this very moment.
Apocalyptic literature is born from the painful discrepancy between what is and what should be. It plays out imaginatively that deep human need to see things set right, once and for all. Pain on the cosmic level, brought to fever pitch, can at last, we are told, give birth to God’s definitive redemption of creation. God can and does, has and will step into our world of chaos and death to “reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25-6).
So, if the image of “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rv 21:10) fills me with an impetuous longing for the consummation of all things, what do I do in the meantime with my dissatisfaction?
Many of the bloodiest regimes of recent centuries seem to have drawn upon apocalyptic ideas to express the urgent need they felt to eliminate “the enemy” –undesirable elements that prevented their society from reaching the perfection they desired. Armenians, Jews, Hutu and Tutsi, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians, Muslims – both Shia and Sunni, communists, capitalists, homosexuals and the disabled have become victims of this purifying impulse which is of man and not of God.
On the other hand, this very nation was founded on the desire for an ideal society in which freedom and justice reigned. People came here as to a promised land, often fleeing persecution and hardship, so as to start over and have a chance at prosperity and happiness. At no point as pure as its most uncritical admirers claim, nor as corrupt as its bitterest critics would have it, this nation has been striving since its foundation toward that “more perfect union” that would serve as a beacon to the other nations of the world. This country, and all human projects aiming for perfection, are “temples made by hands” (Ac 17:24), “a copy and shadow of the heavenly sanctuary” (Hb 8:5). As such, though they may represent beautiful ideals and quicken our practical urge to make a better world for ourselves, they cannot fail to fall short of our most impassioned longings.
“See that you not be deceived… Do not follow them!” (Lk 21:8)
So what do I do with my dissatisfaction? I could reach for a gun, or a rosary, a ballot paper, or a horse and buggy, a sandwich board – or a sandwich. Such impetuous desires and the violent actions that sometimes flow from them serve as background for the gospel’s warnings. The temptation is to follow or to become false messiahs, to buy into the latest utopian fantasy that only increases dissatisfaction and violence. And the violence that besets us comes as much from within as from without. If I am willing to admit that a similar fire burns in me as in an ISIS warrior, a suicide bomber or a lone shooter, I have to ask what would be a more life-giving way to respond to the patent inadequacies of our situation.
“By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Lk 21:19)
The key word is endurance, hypomone in Greek, which means ‘remaining under’, or by extension, ‘patience, endurance, fortitude, steadfastness, perseverance.’ It denotes the ability to remain in a situation of adversity, with quiet mind and without seeking escape, actively waiting for God's definitive action. This word occurs both in the prophetic literature as a call to wait for the Lord’s deliverance, and in New Testament exhortation to stand firm in persecution and hardship, to continue to live as Jesus taught. It is important to note that apocalyptic literature presents the faithful followers of Jesus neither as taking up arms to force the situation, nor as throwing up their hands in defeat.
To endure is to wait and to work. There is no contradiction. This country, this family, this Church, this community: temples made by human hands, stone by stone, choice by choice. The work of our hands is beautiful in imitation of the archetype, but we may live to see it crumble before our eyes, leaving not one stone upon another. If so, may we put our faith all the more in the temple not made by hands, which is eternal in heaven.