“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
“Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (Luke 21:25-28 & 34-36 – NRSV)
First of all a warning: Central to our thinking about the Christian life is the Incarnation. That is both a thoroughly historical fact – which includes the political and the cultural and the social and the physical – and a thoroughly theological fact. The reality of the Incarnation means, amongst other things, that we must resist any temptation to avoid the historical facts of life, any temptation, for example, that might have us thinking that we and or the Church exist outside of history:
“We must go through the finite, the limited, the definite, omitting none of it lest we omit some of the potency of being-in-the-flesh. This does not mean that we should go through it violently, looking for a means to a breakthrough; that would be to try to accomplish everything at one stroke. The finite is not itself a generality, to be encompassed in one fell swoop. Rather it contains many shapes and byways and clevernesses and powers and diversities and persons, and we must not go too fast from the many to the one. We waste our time if we try to go around or above or under the definite; we must literally go through it. And in taking this narrow path directly, we shall be using our remembered experience of things seen and earned in a cumulative way, to create hope in the things that are not yet seen.” (William Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination, University of Notre Dame, 1975, 7.)
Apocalyptic literature can both manifest and encourage the evasion of the mundane, the ordinary historical facts within which we live.
Apocalyptic literature evokes many differing responses, even from the scholars:
“Scholars have had a great deal of ambivalence regarding apocalyptic literature. John Collins illustrates that ambivalence. On the one hand, he quotes Ernst Käsemann: Apocalyptic is ‘the mother of all Christian theology’. On the other hand, he immediately cites Klaus Koch, saying, ‘Apocalyptic is perplexing and embarrassing’. Collins wisely reflects upon the embarrassing popular association of the word apocalyptic with fanatical millennial groups, who justify their actions in the name of a God who is intent on destroying evil and cautions against a prejudice that is pervasive even within biblical scholarship. He further suggests that overreaction as a result of such a one-sided approach characteristic of millennial groups is unwarranted and asks for restraint on the part of all.” (Dorothy Jonaitis, Unmasking Apocalyptic Texts: A Guide to Preaching and Teaching, New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005, 9.)
Luke’s Gospel text before us is an example of apocalyptic literature. It is helpful if we take a moment to reflect on the nature of apocalyptic literature as it is found in the Christian Scriptures. I begin with a piece of modern apocalyptic literature that might set the mood well. It is a poem by Oscar Romero called “Let us not be disheartened” (Oscar Romero, The Violence of Love, compiled and trans. by James R. Brockman, SJ, Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing, 1998, 25.):
Let us not be disheartened
even when the horizon of history grows dim and closes in,
as though human realities made impossible
the accomplishment of God’s plans.
God makes use even of human errors,
even of human sins,
so as to make rise over the darkness what Isaiah spoke of.
One day prophets will sing
not only the return from Babylon
but our full liberation.
‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.
They walk in lands of shadows,
but a light has shone forth’.
Our English words, “apocalypse” and “apocalyptic”, come from the Greek word, apokaluptein, meaning “uncover” or “reveal”. The central focus of Christian apocalyptic literature – including this last book of the Bible – is the ultimate uncovering or final and complete revealing of the glory of God in Jesus who is the Christ. It is an affirmation of the victory of God in Christ – against the odds. It may be thought of as a revelation of a restoration. There is to be found in the apocalyptic literature therefore, reasons for hope. History is not just random, made up of accidents. History is governed by an ultimate intent and purpose that belongs to God.
Amidst varying opinions of the scholars, N T Wright argues – cogently it seems to me – that this kind of apocalyptic literature, in the Jewish tradition, is actually investing historical and political events with their true theological significance. This is an expression of the general axiom that history is in fact salvation history:
“In a culture where events concerning Israel were believed to concern the creator God as well, language had to be found which could both refer to events within Israel’s history and invest them with the full significance which, within that worldview, they possessed. One such language …. was apocalyptic.” (N T Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992, 283. See this entire Chapter 10.)
“We have seen how in the first part of Jesus’ discourse (Luke 21:5-24), Luke has shaped the Prophet’s words so that they can be perceived by the reader as having been already fulfilled, first in the experience of persecution by the first Christians (recounted in Luke’s own narrative of Acts in words directly derived from this discourse), and secondly in the events surrounding the fall of the Temple and the city Jerusalem. An even greater confidence is thereby engendered in these final words which concern the true eschatological event, the coming of the Son of Man, which Luke suggests is the “fulfillment” of the kingdom of God, the moment when God’s rule becomes definitive.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 329-330).
signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars: Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, it is reported that Jesus’ opponents asked for a ‘sign from heaven’ (11:16) and Jesus refuses to give it. However, there will eventually be signs and wonders as the final intention of God is revealed.
distress among nations: The revelation and restoration concerns more than Israel – it has universal application. In the light of the historical circumstances – they had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and the horrible brutality and cruelty that accompanied that event, and they would have heard of the suicide of Nero (68 CE) and known of the instability accompanying the quick succession of four emperors immediately following Nero’s suicide (1) – Luke’s listeners would have been very attuned to “distress among the nations”.
‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’: Luke makes a transition from clearly discernible historical events that his audience would have witnessed, to a theological expectation that remains to be seen. Luke is dependent on Daniel 7 here. Thus N T Wright: “One of the most popular prophecies of the day, this passage was believed to speak about the time when God’s true people would be vindicated after their suffering at the hands of the ‘beasts’, the pagan nations who had oppressed them. This prophecy imagines a great lawcourt scene, in which God, the judge, finds in favour of his people, ‘the son of man’, and against the oppressive ‘beast’. The judgment that falls on the pagan nations is the same judgment that vindicates ‘the son of man’, who is then brought on a cloud to share the throne of God himself.
“The best way of understanding this passage in Luke is then to see it as the promise that, when the Jerusalem that had opposed his message is finally overthrown, this will be the vindication of Jesus and his people, the sign that he has indeed been enthroned at his Father’s side in heaven (see 20:42–43). Luke does, of course, believe in the ‘second coming’ of Jesus (Acts 1:11), but this passage is not about that. It is about the vindication of Jesus and the rescue of his people from the system that has oppressed them” (N T Wright, Luke for Everyone, London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004, 255-256).
Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down etc: This is precisely where the memory of Incarnation counts! We are disciples for the long haul and the long haul can be demanding, tedious, even boring. We can grow weary. Fidelity can be sorely tried. So be attentive, alert, determined – stay the path!
(1) Nero was followed by Galba, Otho, Vitellius – each of whom lasted a few months – and Vespasian who lasted for nearly ten years.
The American essayist, the late Walker Percy (1916-1990), wrote: “Why is it that a man riding a good commuter train from Larchmont to New York, whose needs and drives are satisfied, who has a good home, loving wife and family, good job, who enjoys unprecedented ‘cultural and recreational facilities,’ often feels bad without knowing why? …. Why is the good life which men have achieved in the twentieth century so bad that only news of world catastrophes, assassinations, plane crashes, mass murders, can divert one from the sadness of ordinary mornings?” (“The Delta Factor” in Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1981, 4 & 6-7).
One of the temptations apocalyptic literature holds for us all, is the “promise” of something dramatic and exciting. It seems to hold out an opportunity to escape from the sheer ordinariness that characterizes most of our days. Thus, throughout history – including in our own times – various individuals and groups have emerged who tell of the end of the world as we know it. As often as the end is foretold, just as often it fails to come to pass. And we are left with the morning alarm and turning up for yet another day.
In fact apocalyptic literature, as we find it in the Christian Scriptures and exemplified by todays Gospel – Luke 21:25-28 & 34-36 – carries an entirely different message. Christian apocalyptic literature tells of what “human eyes have never seen, human ears have never heard, (what has) never entered human hearts: All that God has now prepared for those who truly love him” (1 Corinth1ans 2:9). We spend too much of our lives looking for drama and excitement in all the wrong places. This sets us up for despair.
One unintended consequence of this misplaced anticipation is what the ancient spiritual guides called acedia – from the Greek akedia meaning “to be without care or concern”. A listlessness takes over. We lose our energy for what actually matters. The best antidote to the development of acedia is found in keeping Jesus at the centre of our lives. Since the Incarnation is the very core of the Christian life, we can be confident we will find Jesus in the stuff of our days – the mundane tasks, the painful experiences, the joys and sadness of it all.
Thomas Merton sums it up nicely: “Very often, the inertia and repugnance which characterizes the so-called ‘spiritual life’ of many Christians could perhaps be cured by a simple respect for the concrete realities of everyday life, for nature, for the body, for one’s work, one’s friends, one’s surroundings. …. Meditation has no point and no reality unless it is firmly rooted in life. Without such roots, it can produce nothing but the ashen fruits of disgust, acedia, and even morbid and degenerative introversion, masochism, dolorism, negation. Nietzsche pitilessly exposed the hopeless mess which results from this caricature of Christianity!” (Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer, Image, 1971, 39. In the Herder and Herder version of 1969, this text is found on page 45).