TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR ADVENT I(C), 3RD DEC 2000
FR FRANCIS MARSDEN
“There will be signs in the sun and moon and stars; on earth nations in agony, bewildered by the clamour of the ocean and its waves; men dying of fear as they await what menaces the world, for the powers of heaven will be shaken.”
Pope Gregory the Great way back in 600 AD was expecting the end very soon:
“Behold all the things of the world, which we used to hear from the Bible were doomed to perish, we see now destroyed. Cities are overthrown, fortresses are razed, churches are destroyed; and no tiller of the ground inhabits our land any more. Among the few of us who are left the sword of man rages without cease along with the calamities which smite us from above. Thus we see before our very eyes the evils which we long ago heard should come on the world. . .
In the passing away of all things we ought to take thought how all that we have loved was nothing. View therefore with anxious heart the approaching day of the eternal judge, and by repenting anticipate its terrors. Wash away with tears the stains of all your transgressions. Allay by temporal lamentations the wrath that hangs over you eternally. For our loving Creator when he shall come to judgment will comfort us with all the greater favour as he sees now that we are punishing ourselves for our own transgressions.”
Well, if last year we enjoyed a total eclipse of the sun, this year we have suffered “the sea and its waves roaring” - severe storms and rising floodwaters, the partial eclipse of Railtrack: men dying of frustration as they await the 6.18 to Basingstoke. The powers of the cabinet have been shaken by the fuel blockades.
These events shake us out of our complacency, and teach us to be a little more grateful when systems operate well. Our society is not so stable as we like to think. A major war involving an international fuel blockade would bring us rapidly to starvation. How many now know how to “dig for Britain”?
Our sufferings nevertheless have been comparatively minor compared with living through the Blitz or the Normandy beaches on D-Day. And trivial compared to those who have the misfortune to live today in southern Sudan, Congo, Sierra Leone, Burma, the Holy Land, or Chechnya - nations in agony indeed.
Wars and catastrophes compose the discordant grating counter-theme to the song of human life upon earth – a bitter commentary upon humanity’s sinful condition. If the predicted meteorite of AD 2032 may finish us all off, we are still wise to be cautious about leaping on the millenarian bandwagon. “No one knows the day nor the hour, not the angels, nor the Son, no one but the Father.” (Mk 13:32)
“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
The sun and moon and stars will certainly be darkened in comparison with the brilliant radiance of Christ, when He comes to put down the Antichrist and all his followers.
“For in power and majesty will men see Him, whom in lowly stations they refused to hear, that so much the more acutely they may feel His power, as they are now the less willing to bow the necks of their hearts to His sufferings.” (St Gregory)
If some of the modernist theologians had their way, the Second Coming would be a drab affair. They thoroughly demythologise it and strip it of all excitement. No terrifying drum-beats of the Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla to shake the superstructure of Creation, no celestial pyrotechnics as the foundations of the Universe collapse and the galaxies implode, no throngs of luminous angels filling the sky, no thunder, lightening or magnetic storms, no sparkling trumpets to summon the dead before the throne of the Most High.
No, they offer us merely an appropriate spiritual intuition of the significance of Christ and a meaningful reflection that we haven’t been quite as eager to realise the good in our lives as we might have been. An indifferent grey earth fading into a tediously meaningful heaven, hemmed in by the colourless abstractions of academe. I would need several strong black coffees to stay awake through that sort of Second Coming.
Lord preserve us from those who exclude the human imagination from the pursuit of truth, who take the glory and the terror out of religion, lest someone be scared or upset. Fatima was impressive enough to the 70,000 who saw the sun zig-zag from the heavens, was it not? Even to the shocked atheists who witnessed it. Can we not expect rather more on the Last Day?
The Catechism reasserts the glory: “On Judgement Day at the end of the world, Christ will come in glory to achieve the definitive triumph of good over evil which, like the wheat and the tares, have grown up together in the course of history.” (681)
“When he comes at the end of time to judge the living and the dead, the glorious Christ will reveal the secret disposition of hearts and will render to each man according to his works, and according to his acceptance or refusal of grace.” (682)
“When these things begin to take place, stand erect, hold your heads high, because your liberation is near at hand. Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with surfeiting and drunkenness and the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly, like a trap. For it will come down on every living man on the face of the earth.”
It is human nature to drift down the slippery slope, easier to slither downhill than to struggle upwards by improving oneself. “Easy is the way down to the Underworld: by night and day Hades’ door stands open; but to retrace one’s steps and to make a way out to the upper air, that is the task, that is the labour. “(Virgil)
Unaware we grow lax even to debauchery and drunkenness. The reasonable compromise is more socially acceptable than asceticism. It wins us the approbation and amusement of our worldly comrades. The devil attacks us more effectively through our friends than through our enemies. A recent survey showed that the single most frequent reason why young Christians cease attending church is to please a non-believer boyfriend or girlfriend.
The devil suddenly springs the trap. Cunningly outwitting us, he lures us into the worst of habits, so that he may spring the trap of mortality to swallow us coarsened and unprepared, the purpose of our lives unfulfilled, our God-given task hardly started.
That Day which is disaster for many, is in contrast a joy and a liberation for the true Christian. Stand erect, hold your heads high: you are about to be vindicated before all humanity.
Stay awake, watch and pray at all times for the strength to survive all that is going to happen, and to stand with confidence before the Son of Man.
We call to mind the World Wars: the soldiers in their trenches waiting to go “over the top”, or to emerge from the landing craft into a hail of machine-gun bullets and grenades. They knew that many of them would not live to see another day. Many must have lain awake the night before “praying for the strength to survive all that was going to happen.”
We recall how Jesus Himself, the spiritual Conqueror, remained awake in Gethsemane the night before his torture and death, praying with all his heart and soul, for the strength to endure the approaching torment.
Let me give the last word to Gregory once again:
“We find in the Holy Scriptures from the words of the Almighty Lord that the end of this present world is at hand, and the kingdom of the saints, which is everlasting, is about to come. But as the end of the world approaches, many things occur which were not seen before, namely, changes in the air and terrors from heaven, and tempests out of the order of the seasons, wars, famines, plagues, earthquakes in several places . . . these signs of the end of the world are sent before, for this reason, that we may be solicitous of our souls, look to the hour of death and may be found prepared with good works to meet our judge.”
PS Please try to keep the italics, to distinguish between the Gospel text and my comments.