In the period just before the beginning of the year 1000, many people in Western Europe were seized with fear, wondering if the year 1000 marked the end of the world and the second coming of the Lord. In some quarters, similar sentiments were expressed when the calendar changed from 1999 to 2000.
It seems that there is a fascination with knowing the time of “the end,” and the turn from one millennium to another appeared to be a likely candidate. “When?” and “How will we know that the end is near?” are questions that concerned people in the early Middle Ages as well as people today.
In this week’s gospel, Our Lord responds to the same questions by using a number of different images and figures of speech drawn primarily from the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of a “tribulation,” of the darkening of the sun and the moon, of stars falling from the sky. “And then,” He continues, “they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.” Such images form part of what Scripture scholars call “apocalyptic writings.” These writings are not intended to cause fear and trembling among people; rather, they have as their goal the revealing of God’s final and definitive victory, the establishment in full of His Kingdom.
Because apocalyptic writings look forward to a future time, one that generally is not specified but is marked by certain signs, there is an underlying call in apocalyptic literature: a call to fidelity to the Lord in the midst of trial, to hope in the fulfillment of His promises, and to vigilance or watchfulness here and now. As Jesus says in the gospel, “Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.”
Christ, therefore, urges His followers to be attentive to the imminence of the Kingdom. He is not caught up in dates and times; in fact, He states clearly, “But of that day or hour, no one knows.” Instead, the attitude the Lord encourages is one of expectation and readiness, for God can come into our lives at any moment. Indeed, He has already done so with the coming of Jesus Christ. In a very real sense, the “end of the world” has happened; now, all things are new. Christ came to put an end to sin, to hatred, to evil, to death. In place of all that stands in opposition to God and to the Gospel, Jesus brings reconciliation, peace, light, truth and life.
As we prepare to enter very shortly into a new liturgical year (and not long after that, a new year in the secular calendar), Jesus’ use of apocalyptic imagery is very timely. Each of us is called to stand firm in our faith and hope, to resist the temptations and allurements of the world, and to open our eyes every day to the beauty and presence of God in our midst. If we do this, then the “day of the Lord” (whenever it may come) will find us among the “elect” gathered by the Lord into His promised Kingdom.
Fr. De Ladurantaye is director of the Office of Sacred Liturgy, secretary for diocesan religious education, a professor of theology at Notre Dame Graduate School and in residence at the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington.
(This article courtesy of the Arlington Catholic Herald.)