Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last Sunday after Pentecost

Colossians 1:9-14 / Matthew 24:13-25

Apocalyptic scenarios are popular material for novels and movies. The specific scenario is perhaps unimportant: zombie infestation, alien invasion, global nuclear exchange, emergent lethal viruses ... Whatever the cause, the scenario is more or less the same. In the face of some catastrophe, life as we know it, with all of its props and cues, all of its buttresses that direct our actions and (we hope) support and maintain our better instincts, has vanished from the face of the earth. Survival may just be possible, but in the end, life as we know it will end. In such a world, how would one live? When every option seems to end in the same place, a lonely and unobserved death, what choices will we make? We we continue to observe conventional pleasantries, rise to new heights of heroic virtue, or descend to unforeseen levels of depravity? We we abandon all we know to be right to protect the little remaining that we hold dear, or do we, even in the face of a grim and inevitable death, hold ourselves to a higher, holier, hopeful standard?

Such are the questions of the standard, contemporary apocalyptic genre, and there may be much to gain in this sort of mental exercise. However, in the Gospel, Jesus presents what at first glance appears to be this same scenario, but on closer observation turns out to be something quite different. He speaks of a time of great tribulation, so severe that, on its own terms and without being called short by divine mercy for the elect, no flesh should be saved from the horror. He speaks of a terrestrial, indeed a cosmic upheaval, when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven shall be moved. What seemed the immovable and inflexible laws of nature binding the universe together will unravel.

All the same, he also speaks of an upheaval during which there will seem to be meaningful alternatives for survival. Jesus may counsel flight to the mountains or remaining on the rooftop, but staying in the towns and going down for one's coat will apparently seem attractive possibilities. More crucially, it will be a time when, in the place of the Temple, which is to say in place of the clear, unambiguous, abiding sign of God's covenant and presence in and to the world, there will be the abomination of desolation. What looked secure in the spiritual world will be taken away, apparently never to return. In light of this absence of what seemed secure and lasting, voices will suggest that the Christ may still be found, but not where we were thinking him to be. They will ask us to broaden our horizons, to look past the narrow limits of our received faith, of the Scriptures and Tradition, and find Christ waiting for us in the desert or in the closets, that is, either outside the received faith or else within our own imaginings without reference to what we have received from others. What is more, Christ warns us that, in those days when the sure, stable, traditional signs of the faith have gone missing, these temptations to find Christ elsewhere will be such as to deceive (if possible) even the elect.

We may find it easy to imagine a world so broken, a world in which most of our choices have been taken away from us, and in that world to do what is right, even heroically so. But what do we do in a broken world that seems to go on and on, but in which the signs of Christ's presence are more and more replaced by abominations of desolation, when false Christs are more and more abundant?

Tempting as it may be to grit our teeth and prepare for fierce battle, our God has given us different marching orders. After all, he has already won the fight and through his transforming grace given to us at baptism and strengthened in the Eucharist hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us int the kingdom of the Son of His love. Our duty, then, is to live in accord with that new world of which we are already a part. We are to be filled with knowledge of God, to walk in a way worthy of him, being fruitful in good works and suffering with joy the injuries we receive. This is why we do not have to face the apocalyptic scenario with either despair or with grim determination. We have been freed through the blood of Christ from those unhappy options and delivered already to the safety of the world to come.

Be gracious, O Lord, to our humble entreaties: receive the offerings and prayers of Thy people, and turn to Thyself the hearts of us all; and thus freed from earthly covetings, may we be caught by heavenly desires.

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