Everyone has a favorite. Some people cite Neville Shute’s On the Beach, with its interminable wait for the poisonous radiation that has destroyed all life in the northern hemisphere to finally reach the beaches of Australia. Other people say it’s definitely Stephen King’s The Stand with its Anti-Christ who rules from Las Vegas and the climactic showdown between good and evil. Science fiction purists prefer Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle where civilization is destroyed by a comet that collides with the earth. For those who want their apocalypse covered with gore, George Romero’s black and white classic Night of the Living Dead stands as the ultimate vision of the end of the world. My own favorite is Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which Earth is bulldozed by the Vogons to make way for a hyperspatial express route, and wherein all the ultimate questions of life, the universe and everything have the same strangely satisfying answer: 42.
If you’re looking for the perfect End-of-the-World playlist to go along with your books and movies, be sure you’ve included Jimi Hendrix’s Third Stone From the Sun, REM’s The End of the World as We Know It, Barry MacGuire’s Eve of Destruction and of course, Bob Dylan’s Talkin’ World War III Blues where “the whole thing started at 3 o’clock fast. It was all over by quarter past.”
The end of days, the last things, the apocalypse, whatever you want to call it, is endlessly fascinating to us who live on this side of time. And it has always been so. The writer of Genesis weaves a promise of the end of the world into Yahweh’s curse of the talking snake when he warns it that the offspring of Eve will crush its head someday. And a few chapters later, the world does end, in a global deluge worthy of any modern apocalyptic storyteller. The Hebrew prophets filled scroll after scroll with the promises of suns gone dark, melting moons, shaking mountains and rivers flowing red with blood on the Great and Fearsome Day of the Lord.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew has Jesus and his friends sitting in an olive grove on a hill overlooking the city of Jerusalem. They have spent the day in the Temple, and the disciples are overcome with religious and national pride. Jesus warns them not to be so impressed with marble and gold, for that all they have seen will someday be laid to waste. They are stunned. Yahweh’s Temple? The City of Jerusalem? What about the covenants, the promises, the Kingdom of David? Jesus is adamant: it’s all going down.
“When?” they ask, “when will these things happen? And what will be the sign of your coming and the end of time?”
“Listen,” Jesus replies, “nobody knows that. I certainly don’t. The angels in heaven don’t have a clue. Only God knows. It’s going to be like it was during Noah’s flood: everything will be going along like it always has—people will live their lives, they will get married, have careers, houses, the stuff of a good life—and then, bam! They will be snatched out of their everyday into judgment. That’s why you’ve got to be ready all the time. You don’t leave your house unprotected at night, because you have no idea if this is the night some bandit has decided to rob you. So just be ready for it.”
Well, of course they were and they weren’t. In the first few decades after Jesus, his followers stayed in a constant state of expectation. Every clash between the Jewish resistance and the occupation forces of Rome offer the possibility of being the one that would end it all and bring on the return of Jesus. You can hear the breathlessness of that hope in St. Paul’s words to the small group of Christians who lived hidden in the belly of the imperial beast:
You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.
Paul is consciously evoking Jesus here in his counsel to the Roman believers: Don’t get entangled in the world. Don’t borrow money. Love each other intensely. Get ready for the battle ahead. It’s coming, maybe tonight.
Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, from which he was about to leave on a mission trip to Jerusalem. He had spent months raising money for the orphans and widows in the holy city and was anxious to be on his way. While occupied with his care for the poor, Paul also had an eye on what was going on in the Imperial capital. And right about the time that Paul was penning this letter, Emperor Claudius died, and his nephew climbed atop the golden throne of Rome. He would be the last of the Julian dynasty and he’s the poster child for bad government. His name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but I suspect you know him better as Nero. And Paul had every reason to be concerned about Nero’s rise: within a few years, as the Christian movement began its rapid spread in Rome, Paul would be arrested and executed by Imperial decree.
The world could not possibly last much longer. In Palestine, a string of victories by the Jewish insurrection resulted in a surge of Roman forces, who started a methodical occupation beginning in Galilee in 66. The Romans, under the determined leadership of General Vespasian, began working their way south, crushing every outpost of guerrilla activity on the way towards Jerusalem.
Christians were not the only ones fixated on the state of the Empire: the Roman Senate and the military leadership was as well. The Senate, increasingly alarmed by Nero’s tyranny, voted to impeach him. When the mad Emperor committed suicide, Rome itself seemed to be possessed by his demons, as usurpers, pretenders and criminals all vied to be the next Caesar. Finally, Vespasian listened to the pleas of his fellow generals and returned to Rome to be crowned Emperor. It was left to his son Titus to complete the pacification of Palestine.
Titus surrounded the city at Passover of 70, and began a siege that cut off all water and food supplies. Inside the city, things were becoming desperate, and the guerrilla leaders, never very good at doing anything other fighting, began to fight among themselves. Each day, everyone inside the city, prayed for divine rescue. Every day, outside the city, the troops dug trenches. In May, after peace negotiations broke down, the Romans burst through the walls and began to slaughter anyone who put up the slightest resistance. No one knows why–and historians suspect it was an accident–but somebody started a fire in the Temple during the chaos following the breach of the walls. From the Temple, the fire spread quickly through the rest of the city and the Romans took advantage of it. The Royal City, the throne of David, Seat of the Covenant, was destroyed. Titus arrived back in Rome and his proud father erected the Arch which still stands over the city. If you look closely at it, you can see the image of a Roman legionnaire carrying a menorah.
All over the Empire, followers of Jesus, bowed in prayer, one eye on heaven, waiting for his triumphant return. For the world had ended, and the New World must be arriving. They waited, watched and prayed. Though the sky remained stubbornly intact, and Jesus was nowhere to be seen, the followers of Jesus never quite made peace with the words of Jesus. Each time the handbasket of human accomplishment seemed headed perilously down the vertical shaft of oblivion, Christian sects arose to interpret the grimness and declare that this, finally, was the End of the Age. They always were and always will be wrong.
So why are Christians so obsessed with the time of this unknowable Time? The truth is, it is not just Christians, but their religious kinsmen in Judaism and Islam that long for the End to come. Judaism still longs for her Messiah and Islam waits for the Day of Resurrection, where Allah will make his final judgment on humanity. Other religions long for the End as well, from Bahiaism to Rastafarianism, from the Norse Final Destiny of the Gods, to the Buddhist coming of Lord Maitreya, there is some deep yearning in the heart of people for the a final resolution to all that is. Even among the post-religious secular folk, it is an article of faith of that human selfishness and greed are destroying the world and life as we know it will end, whether in the melting of the polar ice caps, or in nuclear conflagration.
The reason is simple: humanity knows in its heart that there is something terribly flawed in the cosmic order, and that the arc of the universe is bent towards justice. One need not be a socialist to understand that the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, the vast interwoven web of earthly life is stretched taut to a near breaking point and that it cannot go on like this forever. One need not be a secularist to know that pouring millions of tons of carbon in the air and dumping toxic waste into the seas every day is madness. One need not be a neo-Luddite to grasp that one day some nation which possesses the ultimate weapon will plunge humanity into its greatest crisis since creation.
But the point of Jesus’ teaching on the Mount of Olives was not to cower us by fear, but to fill us with hope. The end of the Temple was not the end of faith—it was not even the end of the Jewish faith. Jesus was trying to tell his followers about a new kind of faith, one that is not focused on buildings and laws, priesthoods or prophets but one focused on justice, righteousness and peace.
This is the first Sunday in the short season of Advent. Advent is often portrayed as a poor second cousin to Lent, where you can snatch some extra forgiveness for all those summer and autumn sins that have gnawed at you since Pentecost. But divine grace is sufficient for cleansing our sins and we don’t need four more weeks to think about what we have done and what we have not done.
Some people think that Advent is a simply a time for monastic reflection, a warm, quiet, purple and blue zone amidst the consumer reds and greens of the Selling Season. But the Bible lessons for Advent are not monastic texts: this week we have the images of field hands harvesting and millers grinding; the next two weeks we will follow John the Baptizer’s frenetic ministry from the Jordan river to a Galilean dungeon. Then, on the last week, we will watch Joseph wake up from the most startling dream, and rush off to marry his pregnant fiance.
We call this season Advent—from the Latin “coming”—because it is the time for us look, not for a way out of this world, but for a way into it. Advent is the season of coming: the coming of love, the coming of justice, the coming of peace. It is a time to renew our commitment to live each day as if this could be the Day. We have come into the world, and we are to be each of us, an incarnate Jesus for the world.
Yes, the world is broken and like people of faith in every age, we long for its healing. But the healing of the world, the beating of swords into plowshares, the loving of our neighbors, the seeking to right what is very wrong on our planet: these are our everyday tasks as we seek to enter the world. There is very real suffering in the world, and we may be tempted to see the world through very dark lenses. We could justify holing ourselves up in some Christian holy city, trying to keep the legions of hopelessness and pain outside. That is the surest way for them breach our walls.
Advent calls us to fling open the doors and enter ourselves into the places where it is darkest, where we can touch the deepest suffering, soothe the deepest pain, repair the broken walls and establish peace. The sign of Jesus’ coming and the End of the Age is right here, right now, in this Advent season. It is you—formed into the body of Christ, being who you are called to be in the world, waiting not for its End but for its Beginning.