It has been traditional to reflect on an end-of-the-world gospel passage as we approach the end of the liturgical year. We will also be offered a similar gospel passage on the First Sunday of Advent. It is important to note this because, from a biblical perspective, the end of one world is not such a tragic event since it also announces the beginning of a new one. A sorrowful ‘Goodbye’ must sometimes be accepted before there can be a joyous ‘Hello!’
We should note that in today’s gospel the end of the world is presented on various levels.
The immediate end is the chaotic and painful experience that came when the Romans destroyed the Jewish temple. For Christians at least, this represented the end of the Old Testament era. Secondly, there are hints also of the final, cosmic end of our world with falling stars and dimming of the sun and moon. Finally, in both of these endings we see the elements of the end of our own earthly world in the event we call death.
The phenomena that accompany the final, cosmic end are surprisingly similar to the experiences that often come with our own last days. The failure of the sun and moon and the erratic behavior of the stars are replicated among us when we lose the security represented by these usually reliable heavenly bodies. For instance, when we grow old we sometimes find it hard to remember what time of the day it is. But this is only the end of a world that was never meant to last. We hate to see it go, but God knows what is best for us.
When we try to understand the gospel passages concerning the end of the world, it may be helpful to compare this event with human birth, which, for the infant being born, must surely be a traumatic experience. In fact, if an infant were able to choose, I suspect that it would opt for a continued existence in the warm, safe womb of its mother. The infant does not yet know how tragic it would be to miss all the possibilities of independent human life.
We too live in this world in a kind of womb that is meant to prepare us for birth into a new and better existence. Unlike the infant, however, we can resist that birth and we may even see it as a kind of personal tragedy. If our faith were as strong and vital as it should be, this would not be the case. Instead, we would embrace our present life with gratitude and still be ready to leave it with grace and peace, as we welcome the homecoming that God keeps in store for his beloved children.
But we don’t have to wait until death to begin living by the wisdom of the Bible. In our lives there are little worlds ending all the time—the end of childhood, of education, of employment, of strength, etc. The courage and generosity and trust with which we deal with these endings will prepare us for the final ending.
It is also true that every time we love unselfishly we die a little bit to our own precious plans and preferences. If we die daily in these small ways, we will have little difficulty with the final dying as our plans are once again revised and we offer our lives, once and for all, to a merciful and loving God.
A confrere, in a pensive mood, said to me one time that it didn’t seem fair for God to give me life without consulting me and then to allow me to make a mess of it. I thought about that and concluded that the baptismal experience, as one begins to see its implications, is that incredible opportunity to agree with my Creator, that life is always a wonderful gift and we should be saying continuously: “Thank you, dear Lord!”
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.