Good news! The world is going to end.
We don’t know how, or when, though there are plenty of people who think they do. The destruction of the world by nuclear Armageddon or coronavirus or climate change or asteroid is just around the corner, the newspapers say. And this is nothing new. The first hearers of the Gospel thought that they knew when the world was going to end, too. They thought they knew the signs, and they thought that it was coming soon.
Now, there’s a date that every Christian should really know, and it is AD 70, the date where the Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. This was the sign by which many faithful Jews thought they knew that the end of the world was coming.
But Jesus told them that this was not the sign they should be looking for. The end of the world would not be heralded by the collapse of the social order, by institutions like the temple, or even by the extermination of all human life on earth, plan but by a catastrophe at the cosmic level. of course, Jesus didn’t know about the Big Bang and the big crunch theories, but surely he is talking about something like this, when the sun goes dark and the moon goes dull and the stars and planets fall. But, he says, nobody knows when it is going to happen. So, he says, stay awake! Be ready! Look for the signs of the Second Coming of the Son of Man.
“Good things come to those who wait” used to be the strapline for Guinness beer adverts for over a decade. In one of them, an old man went off for a swim in the sea while he waited for the beer settle to perfection. But not anymore. They dropped those adverts in 2007. Maybe “waiting” doesn’t sell any more.
You wouldn’t think so, to see the Christmas trees already out in the shops, but Advent is a time for waiting. Really, Christmas doesn’t start until 25 December. It goes on for twelve days, culminating with the Epiphany. And yet it seems that for many people, Christmas Day is the end of Christmas, not the beginning. Time to pack up your presents and dismantle the tree. The lead-up to Christmas, on the other hand, has become a time for rushing. A time for buying the right presents, working the extra shifts to afford them, getting ready to feed the five thousand, choosing which bits of the family to spend which days with. The pressure (for mothers in particular) to give everyone ‘the perfect Christmas.’ A time for stress, anxiety, panic buying.
So who is pushing it? Who is cracking the whip? Well, the same people who have appropriated every other Christian festival in the year to pressurise you into giving them money. The same people who put the Easter eggs out in January, the Hallowe’en gear out in September. It’s not in their interest to encourage you to wait. It’s not in their interest to give you time to meditate on higher things. It’s in their interest to rush you, push you, pressurise you into an endless cycle of purchase and consumption. As soon as they’ve given you one thing, they make you want the next, and they delude you into believing that that desire is coming from inside you. And so our calendar collapses into meaninglessness; times once set aside for rest and restoration of proper relationships, Sundays, holidays, all become nothing more than another “retail event.” As with time, so with space. The carpark and the shopping mall have replaced the churches which used to be at the heart of European and American communities, and it seems much of the rest of the world has followed suit. Instead, we’ve paved paradise, we’ve built glass and steel temples for the very idols which enslave our desires. We’ve enshrined the things we really serve.
St Augustine once said to God in prayer, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Our hearts will never rest if they are set on the next and newest things. The marketeers will always be one step ahead, making sure that however much we have, we will always want more. To find rest, we must set our hearts on that which does not change. We must watch, and wait. And that is what Advent is about. It isn’t meant to be a season where we prepare frantically for Christmas gifts and meals. It’s not a matter of, “you’d better watch out, you’d better not cry, ‘cos Santa Claus is coming to town,” a sentiment I frankly find rather unsettling. Because, for all Our Lord’s warnings to watch and wait, it’s not about being frantic and anxious at all. Rather, it is the season where we calm ourselves so that we are ready, waiting, in stillness for the second coming of Christ; for death, judgement, heaven and hell. For the end of time and space.
But how is that good news? Well, let’s look for clues in the Gospel text:
Jesus said to his disciples: ‘In those days, after the time of distress, 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. And 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. ‘Take the fig tree as a parable: as soon as its twigs grow supple and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. So with you when you see these things happening: know that he is near, at the very gates. I tell you solemnly, before this generation has passed away all these things will have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. ‘But as for that day or hour, nobody knows it, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son; no one but the Father.’Mark 13:24-32
This whole passage is saturated with language about light. The sun, the moon, the stars and planets our sources of light, of life, of gravity, of stability. Their motions give order to time and space. But they are going to end.
Now this sounds bad. But look at what is going to replace them when the Son of Man comes: the greater light of God’s glory. Now this is the same glory as the light which Moses saw in the burning bush, which made his face shine when he came down from Mount Sinai, which Elijah experienced when he was taken up to heaven in the chariot of fire, which the chosen Apostles saw in Jesus when he was transfigured on Mount Tabor, which all Twelve experienced as tongues of fire at Pentecost. This glory is the uncreated energy of God, the Father of Lights, whose reflection we have seen in Christ, very light of very light, the light which shines in the darkness and which the darkness cannot overcome.
This is why Jesus brings in what otherwise seems a rather odd allusion to the fig tree. It’s a sign of summer. The light of God which will illuminate everything at the end of time is like a endless summer day, so bright and warm that it makes even the sun itself, the blinding source of all our life and light, seem like a miserable, dark winters day. And that is good news.
We can, however, turn it into bad news for ourselves. Every one of us has within our hearts the fountain of God’s light. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. But every one of us also has the freedom to close the doors on that light. This is why Jesus warns us to keep a careful watch on those doors. Repentance, turning into our hearts and knocking up the doors, is the way to open them to that light so that we can get used to it brightness and warmth here and now. When we take communion, Jesus enters within us and batters those doors down, flooding us with light. We can begin to glow with that light, so that it spreads to all the people we meet and serve. But for those who refuse to open the door, for those who prefer to stay in the darkness and the cold company of the Devil, for those who prefer to hate and to use people instead of love them, when that bright light finally comes, have no doubt, it will blind and burn. For where the justice of this world fails, God’s will not. Forgiveness can come, but not without cost. Yet I think it must be said, that to those who have lived through pain and persecution at the hands of their persecutors, this too is good news.
So yes, the world will end. We do not know when. And that’s why we must wait and watch and work to make it good news for ourselves and as much of the world as we can. By the grace of God, there is still time for us, sinners like me and you, to repent and to preach repentance to a sinful world. We need not be anxious, but we do need to be active; active without anxiety, for Christ Our Lord will come, whether we’re ready or not, to turn the light of his loving judgment towards us.
As we receive Him in the Blessed Sacrament, may He strengthen our hearts, make us blameless, and increase in us His love. Amen.