Advent and Apocalypse

Categories: Features

With the end of the liturgical year fast approaching, Fr. James Disney Thompson, O.P., offers his keen insights as to how we should receive the readings at Mass, and prepare ourselves for Christ’s return.

When I was young, my mother dreaded the readings at Mass about the end of the world, how terrible those days would be, and how they could begin any day now. Our Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Advent is one of those texts she dreaded, namely Jesus’ Mount Olivet prophecy in Mark 13.

Francisco Pacheco’s Last Judgment

Those who attend Mass every weekend live out a seasonal parable of salvation history: the liturgical calendar. Fittingly, on the last Sunday of the liturgical year we celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Our Sunday Gospel in 2017 for that day, presents the judgment of all the nations when Jesus returns in glory at the end of the age. This theme of the coming of Christ in glory spills over into the first Sunday of Advent, which begins the next liturgical year. During Advent we transition in our Sunday readings from Christ’s second coming at the end of the age, to the first coming – the prophesied appearance of the Messiah, the Christ, pre-announced by John the Baptist.

The events we celebrate at Christmas occurred 2,000 years ago, and yet we still live in expectant hope of Christ’s return. During his ministry on earth, Jesus chided his contemporaries for their failure to read the signs of the times correctly (Matthew 16:3). There he stood before them, the fulfillment of prophecy in person. But all they could see was the celebrity, or the healing wonder-worker, or a threat to the fragile peace with Rome. Nowadays many voices within and outside the Church insist that today we are living in the very Last Days. Every indication, they say, is that Jesus is coming “real soon.” Should we dare to disagree, we too are accused of being too clueless to read the signs of the times.

In one sense, there is no question that we are living in the end times. Jesus had preached that the kingdom was at hand, and so the prophetic time of fulfillment was near. Others attest that they were indeed living in the end of the age, the last days (Mark 1:15). God spoke variously through the prophets of old, but in these last days he has spoken through his son (Hebrews 1:1-2), who manifested once for all at the end of the ages to nullify our sins by his sacrifice (Hebrews 9:26), and so the end of the ages has come upon us (1 Corinthians 10:11), who have received the Holy Spirit in the last days as the prophet Joel prophesied (Acts 2:17).

In this sense, we have been living in the end times ever since Jesus appeared two millennia ago. In other words, although for God “a thousand years is as a day and a day as a thousand years” (2 Peter 3:8), in these times, in whatever generation we happen to live, daily expectation of his return for us characterizes our Christian lives. Our last days are those immediately preceding our death. So who is to say that these end times we live in now may not last another generation or two, or even 50?

I have studied the book of Revelation since my teenage years. At first I was convinced that the Bible prophecies pointed to 1975 as the year of Jesus’ Second Coming. Many false prophets have arisen in the decades since; all their ministries shipwrecked on the shoals of Bible prophecy. In my later years, I have come to the conclusion that interpreting the Apocalypse as a coded series of predestined events is radically wrongheaded. The message of the Book of Revelation is equally relevant for the Church in every generation. As such, it has almost nothing to do with predicting the future.

Popular religious talk about the end of the world often revolves around such things as who the Anti-Christ might be, or whether some news event is a fulfillment of one of the prophecies. This speculation might be interesting and a lot of fun, but it is not spiritually very important. If we are spending a lot of energy on trying to figure out the End of the World prophecies, then we are missing the point in a big way. If we expend more energy on keeping up with end-time prophecies than we do praying and practicing living virtues, then maybe we ought to re-examine our priorities.

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Check out Fr. James’ blog, Owl of the Apocalypse at owloftheapocalypse.com, for more of his perspective on Revelation.