In the 1750s, the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch, later calling it the most liberating moment of his life. Most of us, of course, don’t have that luxury. I would feel lost if I were unable to check the time. Like it or not, deadlines dominate my life, and clocks control my activities.
And then, of course, there is that distinctly modern invention, the time zone! Years ago, when I was in Canada, a country with 4½ time zones, I used to enjoy hearing the radio announcer proclaim: It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes, and 10:30 in Newfoundland. That last time zone was the inspiration for a famous cartoon of a man holding a sign in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”
Well, sooner or later, Christ will indeed come, that awesome judgment day, that dies irae, when, as we say in the Creed, Christ will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. But exactly when that day will come remains uncertain , despite that cartoon and many others, and despite what many Christians throughout history have believed or wanted to believe – going all the way back to the very first generation of Christians.
Some of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about Christ’s coming that they expected him to arrive any day – or even thought that he had already arrived. And so, they figured, routine stuff - like working – didn’t matter anymore. It fell to Saint Paul to tell them they were wrong – and should go back to work.
Now to us that all may seem obvious. But there have always been those to whom the opposite has seemed obvious, people preoccupied with prophecies and private revelations about the end of the world or some other imminent catastrophic event – as if our world doesn’t have enough problems of our own making, without looking for phony prophecies and special private revelations to explain them!
Jesus’ earthly life coincided with a period of peace in the Mediterranean world, which had been completely conquered by the power and might of imperial Rome. That pax romana - “the whole world being at peace” (as we say in the Christmas proclamation from the Roman Martyrology) – didn’t last, of course. Just a few decades later, 1st-century Israel was the scene of a catastrophic rebellion, leading to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by the Romans. Followers of Jesus – eager for his final return – naturally saw that calamity as a portent of even greater woes to come.
Something similar happened when the Latin Roman Empire itself collapsed in the 5th century. So, for example, in 410 when the city of Rome fell to a foreign enemy for the first time in almost 800 years, a traumatized Saint Jerome lamented, “The brightest light of the whole world is extinguished.” He may not have been consciously channeling Saint Jerome, but in 1914 it was the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey who famously warned as World War I began, "The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our life-time." He was right, of course, about the civilizational suicide that was World War I, as was Jerome about the fall of Rome. But in neither case was it the end of the world. Then as now, we, as his Church, we must continue to wait, with hope, for Christ’s final return.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sought to assure his disciples that Jerusalem’s impending destruction would not signal the end of the world. But his words were addressed to all centuries. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end. As with the pax romana, untroubled, peaceful times have been the exception rather than the rule in human history. Hardly any period has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. The pre-World War I generation believed in peaceful progress. But the last 105 years – among the bloodiest and most destructive in all of human history – have surely falsified that belief. Meanwhile, wildfires, rising seas, melting ice, and hotter-than-ever temperatures increasingly occupy our attention, warning of coming calamities – calamities of our own making, not prophecies but real and present problems.
So, since we cannot know when the end will come, instead of speculating about it, we actually have plenty of work to do in the meantime – starting with the ordinary working for a living of which Saint Paul spoke.
We do the kingdom of God’s work, when we live as Jesus’ disciples, despite difficulties and even opposition. And, rather than obsessing about the end of the world, the kingdom of God’s work here and now commits us to care about the world and one another in the world.
Hotter-than-ever summers, melting Arctic ice, rising sea levels, flooded cities, bigger-than-ever hurricanes, widespread deforestation, and of course California's wildfires are all signs - not necessarily of the Second Coming but of a more humanly induced kind of apocalypse. Climate Change is widely and rightly recognized as one of the defining moral issues of our era - the subject of Pope Francis' famous 2015 encyclical Laudato Si', as well as inevitably a major concern of the recent Special Assembly on the Amazon of the Synod of Bishops, which met in Rome last month.
Over the centuries, the Church has incorporated in her approach to the challenge of daily living in the world an understanding of how human beings are social and political by nature, how human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others and in association with others as fellow citizens. This results in many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy, and also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community. It challenges us to respond to one another and the world we live in seriously in a way that transcends simplistic self-interested slogans and appeals. Far from being obstacles to our experience of God or a stumbling block on our way to God’s kingdom, the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives and the crises and calamities that impact our society and the world at large may be where God is challenging us to act in the present, getting ready for the future by who we are becoming now, by how we live now, what we do now, and how we do it.
Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 17, 2019.