To cope or to hope

"The end is near!"

One of my favorite cartoons about the end of the world shows the bearded ascetic with his warning sign, which says something like: "The end is not coming. You have to learn to cope with it along with the rest of us!"

CEL_Nov152015.jpgOf course, part of the fun of the cartoon is the question of what exactly we have to cope with -- is it the troubles of the world, or primarily just other people?

Thirty-Third Sunday in
Ordinary Time
Daniel 12:1-3
Psalm 16
Hebrews 10:11-14, 18
Mark 13:24-32

In this second-to-last Sunday of the church year, our liturgy focuses on the end times. In the first reading, Daniel tells his suffering people that they will be delivered by Michael, the archangel we learned to turn to for help in battle. The reading from Daniel also contains Scripture's earliest clear reference to the promise of eternal life.

Today's Gospel presents Jesus on the brink of the events of the Passion warning his disciples about the terrors to come. In regard to precise details, he admits that no creature knows the day or the hour -- not even the angels, but only the Father.

In the meantime, Jesus uses the strongest symbolic language he can to shake the disciples from their preconceived notions about him and the coming of God's reign.

We can appreciate today's Gospel more deeply by considering the context in which Mark placed it. This section of his Gospel begins with the story of the devoted, openhanded widow, the woman Jesus admired for her example of giving her all.

Instead of picking up on his message, the disciples, who exercised selective attention deficit whenever the conversation turned toward sacrifice or suffering, focused not on the widow but on the temple whose collection basket she had enriched. Jesus then announced that the temple would soon be obliterated. From there he went on to talk about the great travail to come.

We've probably heard the warning too many times to take it to heart. We know that every epoch has had its prophets who cry out that this time the signs are unmistakable: "This really is it! The end is just around the bend!" We may hear them, but we don't cancel all our subscriptions.

If we listen with fresh ears, we can discern the truth conveyed though Jesus' symbols. In this selection, he speaks of a frightful unraveling of creation. While his description of falling stars and a darkened sun and moon may make us think of eclipses and meteor showers, people whose biblical imagination is unhindered by scientific dogma hear about the nullification of the fourth day of creation. God made the lights to mark the times; when those lights cease shining, there will be nothing by which to orient ourselves.

Jesus is warning the disciples that the time is coming when they will have no clue about where to go or what to do. Everything they have ever held onto will fall apart; there will be nothing left to guide them.

We read this as an apocalyptic description of the end of the world. It was also a vivid prediction of just what would happen to the disciples when Jesus was arrested, tried and put to death.

Then again, it describes what happens to any of us when what we cherish or what grounds our identity falls apart. Whether by death, disease or disaster, we humans are highly susceptible to feeling utterly devastated.

Such moments of catastrophe are just what Jesus is talking about. Jesus knew clearly that he was in mortal danger. He was brutally realistic and so determinedly faithful that he knew as much about what was coming as was possible without having experienced it.

His disciples had dodged that sort of knowledge as consistently as Jesus had confronted it. The tragic irony was that the more they avoided facing suffering and death, the less they could believe in the resurrection and the transformation of hope that it holds out.

At this season of the year, blessedly timed a few weeks before the holiday season captures our own limited attention span, the liturgy summons us to recognize that the end will come. Most of us get lots of practice sessions before we face our own death. Those include tragic loss and illness as well as more ordinary failures, dashed hopes and broken dreams.

Our reading from Hebrews suggests that those experiences have the power to deepen our life in Christ, that they can be part of our ongoing consecration into union with him. The key is to face the fact that everything will pass away. Then we can beg for the grace to be ever more open to the transformation God offers when the failure of everything else has finally opened us enough to receive it.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

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