When Jesus breathed His last on the Cross, He experienced a very real death.
And, in a sense, the world died with Him.
This actually seems most fitting. Were God to become Incarnate, experience a real birth into this world and live in the fullness of humanity only to suffer a violent death—as He did—it seems only natural that the world too should pass away. How could it not? The Creator entered the very world He created and experienced death within it. There would seem to be something very wrong with that world. Something fatally wrong. How could such a world go on?
Indeed, the gospel accounts hint at just this.
Hours before His impending death, darkness swept over the whole land. At that fateful moment, the earth shook and its rocks were rent. The fundamental order of nature seemed askew: the tombs fell open and out walked those who had died—exactly the kind of thing you would expect to see at the end of the world. The earth had coughed up its dead in one last gasp.
This is reminiscent of what had been prophesied about the end times by such as Isaiah:
The stars of the heavens and their constellations
will send forth no light;
The sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not give its light.
For this I will make the heavens tremble
and the earth shall be shaken from its place (Isaiah 13:10, 13).
When I extinguish you,
I will cover the heavens
and darken all its stars.
The sun I will cover with clouds;
the moon will not give light.
All the shining lights in the heavens
I will darken over you;
I will spread darkness over your land (Ezekiel 32:7-8).
Certainly not everything prophesied in Isaiah and Ezekiel about the end times transpires at Golgotha. But Scripture itself declares that the first coming of Christ brought about the end times. Hebrews 1:1-2 declares:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe.
The letters of Paul are permeated with this conviction that the old order of things has passed away. In 1 Corinthians 5:7, for example, he states that “the old things have passed away.” And likewise in Galatians 6:14, he likewise says that “the world has been crucified to me.”
Theologically this makes sense. The old world order truly passed away: a creation that was cursed, a humanity warped and fatally wounded by sin, a world in which it seemed that the most the faithfully righteous men could look for to after death was sleeping among the shadows of Sheol. It was a world overshadowed by sin and death and haunted by the loss of the terrestrial paradise.
Of course, none of us has completely left that world behind. We still struggle with sin. Creation still groans. Our world is certainly no paradise. This is why the New Testament is permeated with the sense that we are still living in the end times. As 1 Peter declares, “the end of all things is at hand.” 1 John 2:18 announces that “it is the last hour.”
Yet already the signs and the substance of the new world are also all around us—in the sacrament of baptism in which we are given a new destiny, in the forgiveness of sins and renewal that we experience in confession, in the lives of the saints, and in so many other areas.
So we are living between worlds, the old and the new, which is exactly what St. Paul indicates: “Put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires … and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Ephesians 4:22, 24).
The end times, then, were ‘ushered’ in by the Incarnation, as the catechism itself says, and are still with us. It may seem strange, but so it goes with God, who, being all eternal, both stands outside of time and contains time within Himself since He is not contained by it. All moments are therefore present to God in their fullness even as we must live from one to another.
The old world is still around us, but it is dying. The death blow was delivered on the cross. Yet even now, two thousand years later, we can still see that piercing darkness and feel the earth tremble.