Recently, I purchased some used furniture for the parish office. A local vendor had some good chairs at a good price and was willing to deliver them. When the delivery arrived, the truck driver sheepishly informed me that the warehouse had made a mistake; some of the chairs loaded on the truck were the wrong size and color. The driver promised that he would talk directly to the salesman and get the problem sorted out immediately. I reassured the driver that I wasn’t worried by this, and that I would speak with the salesman. Curiously, the truck driver didn’t seem reassured by my words.
When I spoke with the salesman, he reacted to the mistake in the same distraught fashion as the truck driver. The whole situation was a little confusing to me; the office furniture vendor seemed to be terrified by the fact that one or two employees had made a minor error.
A few days passed, and the correct chairs were delivered. When I told the salesman that everything had been put right, he still seemed anxious. At the end of the conversation, he thanked me for being patient with his company’s error. It was at that point that I realized why the truck driver and the salesman had acted so strangely.
Unfortunately, that vendor had grown accustomed to irate customers who demand perfection and act abusively when their unrealistic expectations are not met. This sad situation occurs with regularity. Retail customers now consider it obligatory to shout like petulant children. Airline passengers assume they have permission to be violent and insulting to airline crew members. Voters feel as if they are required to heap acrimony on elected officials. I can only try to imagine what goes on in people’s homes. In 1960, Nikita Khrushchev was laughed at when he went on a carping tirade during a United Nations General Assembly session. Today, we’ve become so inured to rude public behavior that I think that Khrushchev might laugh at us.
I wanted to tell the salesman to relax because it was only office furniture and not the end of the world. I refrained from saying what was on my mind because I didn’t want to sound as if I put no value on the business that had provided me with a good product at a good price. Increasingly, however, people react to minor disappointments as if the world is presently coming to an end.
Because of the over-excitability, hyper-sensitivity, and pathological self-centeredness that is accepted as normal today, it might be difficult to understand the message conveyed by the apocalyptic literature in the Scriptures. Apocalyptic literature is an imaginative portrayal of end-of-the-world scenarios, but the frightening imagery is for the purpose of engendering hope.
In today’s Gospel, for example, Jesus says, “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. And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’ with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” (Mk. 13:24-27) These words sound terrifying, but they are intended to provide consolation and guidance to those who suffer.
It might seem a little strange that apocalyptic literature intends to strengthen hope through end-of-the-world imagery, but one must keep in mind that Christianity has a rather counter-intuitive view of the end of time. From God’s point of view, the end of the world is that blessed moment when God will redeem all creation from the burdens of sin and death; this is not something to be feared. Apocalyptic literature uses fearful images, not to frighten people about the completion of God’s plan of salvation, but to remind all people that the only thing truly to be feared is to lose one’s faith and hope.
There is a tongue-in-cheek aspect to apocalyptic literature. The biblical authors use apocalyptic as something of an insider’s joke: to some people, the world looks like it’s falling apart; to believers, the world looks like it’s about to be healed by God. Apocalyptic invites us to believe God rather than to believe our limited perception of the world. One person’s perception of the world is necessarily colored by experiences of disappointment and loss; such a perspective can lead easily to the abandonment of hope. Apocalyptic invites us to be hopeful, even cheerful, in the face of the normal limitations and disappointments we experience.
Disappointment is unavoidable, but despair is not. The end of the world has already happened at the point that you give up hope for the redemption of all the world. For those whose hope is in the Lord, no disappointment is final because the final day of creation is the day of redemption.