As we draw to the conclusion of the Church year the scriptures turn to the theme of the end of time and the events that will accompany it. This gives us a great opportunity to review what Catholics believe regarding the final events of history—which differs from what many other Christians hold about them.
Saint Paul starts us off with his response to the Christian community in Thessalonika, an early center of the faith. The Thessalonians had evidently expressed concern about their loved ones who had been baptized and later died (“fallen asleep”), even though the Lord had not returned. To understand their concern we must remember that a common belief among many early Christians was that the risen Jesus would return in glory within the lifetime of the first generation of believers and take his faithful with him to heaven.
Paul writes: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thess 4:13-14). His response assures the Thessalonians and all Christians that they can trust that God will bring to himself through Christ all who believe, both those who are alive at the coming of Christ and those who have died.
This basic catechesis about death and resurrection appears in various forms throughout Paul’s letters. By his inspired words we rest firm in the belief that just as we share in Christ’s death through our symbolic burial in the waters of baptism, so too by that same baptism we have the hope of rising to new and eternal life with Christ. This is true whether we are alive or have already died at the time of the Lord’s coming.
Paul then continues: “For the Lord himself, with a word of command, with the voice of an archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thess 4:16-17).
This passage of scripture is famous among some of our evangelical and fundamentalist Christian sisters and brothers as a description of what they call “the rapture.” The rapture indicates the moment when Christ will return and the dead will rise, and the living will be “raptured;” that is, “caught up together” with the dead who have risen and join Christ in heaven.
Many ideas circulate as to how this will work. Paul’s point, however, is not so much about what exactly will happen but rather that it will in fact take place and both the living and the dead who believe in Christ will share in his risen glory: “Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess 4:17).
Our Lord brings together these thoughts about the end with his parable of the five wise and five foolish virgins in the Gospel. There the bridesmaids who brought extra oil for their lamps represent wise believers who put their trust in Christ and his future coming—and are always prepared for it.
The five foolish bridesmaids are like Christians who profess faith with their lips but whose hearts lie far from our Lord and are unprepared when he comes. Resting firm in our faith that we will rise together with Jesus as we die with him in baptism, let us resolve not to worry about what the resurrection will be like, but to follow his advice and “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt 25:13).
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.