Storm season in Florida is almost finished for this year. Fortunately, it was an uneventful storm season. The relatively calm weather allowed time for me to have the windows in the rectory replaced. There were some windows that wouldn’t open, and others that wouldn’t close. The window in the kitchen leaked during rain showers; the leak ran directly into the sink, but it was nonetheless annoying.
There is no way to predict the occurrence of the tropical storms that affect Florida, but there are reasonable measures that everyone ought to take in order to anticipate the possibility of storm damage. Windows that shut fully, for example, are a nice precaution. I’m happy to say that the rectory is better prepared than before. Natural disasters are not the only destructive possibility that merits some advance preparation.
The first reading and Gospel this Sunday belong to a class of biblical literature called “apocalyptic.” Many of the images used by scriptural apocalyptic literature are drawn from natural disasters. In the Gospel reading, Jesus says, “But in those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark 13:24-25)
Sadly, the evening news often contains images similar to these. Natural and man-made disasters have the effect of bringing “great tribulation” (Mark 13:24), into the lives of individuals, cities and sometimes, entire nations. The news during this past week was filled with images of refugees displaced by the conflict in Syria, mourning families of the Russian airliner that crashed in Egypt and the confusion caused by the senseless hit-and-run deaths that have occurred recently in Pinellas County. We were very fortunate to have no serious tropical storms during this past storm season, but if a storm had come ashore here, many of us in this neighborhood would still be experiencing “a time unsurpassed in distress.” (Daniel 12:1)
There is an obvious connection between disastrous events and the end of time referred to in biblical apocalyptic: both are unforeseeable; we are certain that they will occur, but we can never be certain when they will occur. Biblical apocalyptic, however, comes with a very significant offer of consolation. The Book of Daniel says, “those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.” (Daniel 12:2)
Biblical apocalyptic intends to help us look past the troubles we face now in order that we might keep our attention focused on the redemption to come. Furthermore, just as the preparations necessary for storm season in Florida are actions that need to be taken in advance of a storm, so too the preparations for the conclusion of time are actions that need to be taken in the present.
Again, recent news reports offer some instructive examples. Each day this week has brought new revelations of on-going racial discrimination at the University of Missouri. The careers of several of the University’s leaders have ended because of this scandal. Those academic leaders, who devoted their lives to promoting higher education, will be remembered not for their contributions to the University but for their negligence. The tragedy of unchecked racial violence was entirely avoidable, but now has become a permanent part of the history of the University of Missouri. In the words of Scripture, a quiet rural college campus has become a “reproach and everlasting disgrace.” (Daniel 12:2)
Most of us will never do anything destructive enough to merit national attention, but all of us let our selfishness and pride run out of control from time to time. Our human nature tends toward pettiness, unforgiveness and excess. All of us see the value in fulfilling our duties to God and neighbor, but we’d rather not have to make the effort required to do so. It is not complicated to make adequate preparations for the end of time (or the end of our individual lives). However, just as with preparing for storm season, preparations for the Last Day don’t happen without our conscious effort. It is all too easy to delay indefinitely the necessary virtue that leads to a holy life (and a joyous afterlife), but the consequences of doing so are tragic.
The sorts of virtue that the Catholic Faith asks of us are exactly the sorts of things that keep our lives from degenerating into tragedy. There is great effort required to participate fully in Sunday Liturgy, to pray daily, to avoid temptation, to give alms and to forgive those who offend us. That effort, however, is the only guarantee we have of avoiding self-inflicted disaster. Religious faith does not protect us from troubles, tribulations, sorrows or loss. It does offer, however, the real possibility of avoiding the unnecessary suffering that results from having a life in turmoil because of our disordered affections.
At the close of this liturgical year the Scripture readings draw a comparison between the end of the Church calendar year and the end of time. The Scriptures invite us to see the conclusion of our lives as holding the same joyful promise that the conclusion of the liturgical year holds. When our liturgical year concludes, we begin a new one with the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus; in a similar way, when our lives conclude we face the possibility of entering into a new life free from the burdens of sin and death. However, that possibility becomes a reality only when we make adequate preparations in advance.
Daily we are surrounded by examples of people whose lives are a “reproach and everlasting disgrace.” (Daniel 12:2) We are not obliged to join them. Rather, the Scriptures invite us to a life that ‘shines forever like the stars.’ (Daniel 12:3) Entry into that life is no more complicated, and no less arduous, than fulfilling the promises we made at Baptism.