When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.
Until I lived south of the Mason Dixon line, I had never heard much about the Rapture. Having grown up Catholic, I barely knew what an altar call was, much less anything so apocalyptic as the Rapture. But when you hear apocalyptic talk from Christians who really believe it, it is truly disturbing and powerful stuff. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of North American Christians could hear this passage from Mark’s Gospel, put it together with some even more vivid passages from John’s Revelation, and all in all know for sure that when Jesus comes again, and come he will soon, just before the final battle between the East and the West, to take place probably somewhere in the Middle East, the select few, the super-Christians will meet their Lord in the air, be rescued from the great Tribulation and reap their reward as the rest of the world collapses in the mire of its apostasy and infidelity.
It is a crazy, scary vision, and you can hear it in the oddest places, at the oddest moments, from the most unlikely people, people in other respects just like you and me. You hear it a lot during primary election season. And if you wear a white collar around your neck, you can expect to hear it more often than most.
It happened to me once when I was standing at the church door after a Eucharist much like this, as the days got shorter and the Gospel readings got more apocalyptic in the run-up to Advent. I was doing what clergy normally do at the church door, talking about the weather, doing what my Italian grandmother would call “making nice.” Suddenly a strange face came through the receiving line, its owner turned to me, shook my hand, said something polite about how “I enjoyed your message, preacher”—and then, out of nowhere, she looked me straight in the eye and assured me that I was right, that Jesus would be coming soon, I knew he was, that these were the birthpangs, and that those of us who were his elect would be taken up to meet him in the air. She said this with both urgency and intensity in her voice, and the moment became tense with my anxiety.
Of course, I thought I had said no such thing, or at least I didn’t think I had. She left me speechless. They always do, these apocalyptic bolts from the blue—otherwise respectable, ordinary people living their religious lives secretly in a first-century universe, a universe where Biblical language like the language we heard this morning—language that we think of as either metaphorical or otherwise translatable—means in fact exactly what it sees it means, and leaves you facing the person opposite you as if across an abyss.
Encounters like this over the years have taught me something. Apocalyptic talk is dangerously comforting. Everything is worked out. There are no surprises. Salvation means rescue from a world that has no place for you. Apocalyptic imagery has always been the comfort of the marginal, the threatened and the displaced. That certainly was the case for the first century Jews and Christians who treasured such talk. For a Christian to see herself as a member of the elect taken up in the end-time rapture is to kick the dust of earth from your heels, truly to become the pure spirit that you were always meant to be, and the devil take the rest.
So when it comes to interpreting passages like the passages from Daniel and Mark that we heard today, I am usually in Emily Dickinson’s corner.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
I am convinced that there is Truth to be heard in all this talk of apocalypse and last things, Truth that, like the Second Coming itself, will take us by “superb surprise.” I’d like to think that we heard the Truth in this morning’s gospel, but that we heard it “slant”—in metaphor, or as Dickinson would say, “in Circuit.”
But you have to be careful. In this run-up to the Advent season, as we feel our way toward the celebration of the Lord’s first coming among us, the lectionary readings are relentless in holding before us the image not of the First but of the Second Coming, images of tumult and judgment, the archangel’s trumpet sounding in a darkened sky, images of God in Christ transforming the world before our very eyes.
As my friend in the receiving line could rightly insist all those years ago, there is no denying it—the language of apocalypse is central to the Biblical expression of God’s triumph in the world. And those early Christians believed it would happen just as Scripture describes, “in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye.” This kind of language is everywhere in the New Testament, no getting around it, no editing it out, even in as proper and contained a Eucharist service as this one.
What we do as we gather at this altar is “but the beginning of the birthpangs.”
As I say, apocalyptic thinking can comforting, but it can also be dangerous. The dangers, of course, are all too evident in the events of Friday night in Paris. Violence is violence. No religious conviction can ever justify it. The evil unleashed on the people of that world city was engendered by many things, but not least by the wanton distortion of apocalyptic thinking, the kind of apocalyptic fanaticism that would embolden self-righteous and suicidal young assassins to slaughter innocent people at a rock concert, all in the name of a false and bloodthirsty God who bears no resemblance to the Allah of Islam, the Yahweh of the Hebrew prophets, or the long-expected Savior whose praises we will sing in Advent.
A father who had brought his son to his first soccer game, only to experience the terror of the suicide bombing just outside the stadium gate, was clear and eloquent when approached by a reporter:
“I just want to protect my son. There are many people out there who are fighting in the name of God, but no god could authorize such a thing.” And more than one witness to the carnage on the neighborhood streets called what they had witnessed “apocalyptic,” as if the world had ended.
This morning we stand with all Parisians. God bless the people of Paris, God bless the wounded, God bless the dying and the dead, God bless those who mourn.
What then, of these readings? What can possibly be their appeal in the aftermath of Friday’s apocalyptic slaughter?
The answer is not simple. As I say, apocalyptic thinking is always dangerous. But what is dangerous is not necessarily destructive. For us to live under the shadow of apocalypse—to live as Jesus’ followers lived, to live as Paul’s congregations lived, to live in full expectation, as we say in the Creed week by week, “until his coming again”—is to live not violently but prophetically. It is to proclaim that the way things are in the world, the way things are structured, the way we sometimes feel that we have been taken by the powers and principalities that hem us in, by fanatic and demonic powers that deny the fact of human solidarity and human dignity—it is to proclaim that all that makes for oppression and domination in the world will in the fullness of time be uncovered for the evil that it is. That in fact, is what the word “apocalypse” means. It is an uncovering, a tearing asunder of the veil, a revelation of things as they really are, an unleashing of God’s mystery and a freeing up of love.
So what does it mean for a Christian to live apocalyptically? What does it mean for us to live our lives, as one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it, “in these last days”?
I think it frees us to be who we are, knowing that life is not ours to control, but that the life we have, short as it is, is ours to live as Jesus would have us live—lives shaped by compassion. Friday night in Paris. Cabs took people home for free. People opened their doors through Twitter. Lines around the corner giving blood. You don’t have to be a Christian to act this way. But if you are a Christian you know that, in the end, to act this way—to act with immediate and unconditioned compassion in a world run amok—is to reveal the steady unleashing of God’s mystery, the breaking-through of the Kingdom, the very birthpangs of a world restored.
The Rev. Roger Ferlo, Ph.D.