Ours is a curiously credulous world. As orthodox Christian faith has waned as a cultural influence in the West, we’ve seen a renaissance of all sorts of non-Christian beliefs and practices, from astrology to whatever. We are (as N.T. Wright remarked in one of his books) an increasingly confused culture. We embrace every imaginable irrationality that may offer us a pseudo-spiritual new age shot in the arm, then lapsing back into Enlightenment rationalism only whenever needed to question authentically Christian religious beliefs. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, there are many people who sincerely profess authentic Christian beliefs but seem at the same time to be especially attracted to increasingly apocalyptic prophecies and predictions and dubious private revelations. Yet the same Jesus who told his hearers to be on the lookout for apocalypse and to recognize the signs of his coming, also assured them that “of that day or hour, no one knows" [Mark 13:32].
So, where is that supposed to leave us? What do we see happening in our world? What are we supposed to see and what does it portend?
In this Sunday’s Gospel [Mark 13:24-32], Jesus made his ominous predictions just prior to Passover - in the springtime, when the fig tree sprouts leaves, a sure sign that summer is near. It is, however, in the autumn of the year that the church annually repeats this message. Autumn is the long-awaited and hoped-for season of harvest, when the year’s work finds fulfillment (the non-agricultural, post-industrial society version of that being, I suppose, the year-end bonus - for those who still get such things).
Harvest, however, also marks an end. In nature, November vividly anticipates both the eventual end of the natural world and the eventual end of each individual one of us. Because our advanced technological lifestyle has allowed us to become disconnected from the rhythm of the natural world – perhaps too much so (as recent storms and our growing climate crisis may be telling us) – we may be less acutely conscious of such sentiments than were our ancestors as recently as a couple of generations ago. Accordingly, the Church symbolically compensates for our excess of civilization, recapturing for us that natural cyclical mood, as it recalls Christ’s warning words about the end – an end, which, in this unique case, actually comes first, preceding the long-awaited and hoped-for harvest, when the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory 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.
And so we wait – not just for the end of the world, but for the individual end of each one of us, the end of that individual world of hopes and struggles that we are each so laboriously building from the fabric of our individual lives. And it is precisely how we wait that identifies what the Christian life in the world is all about.
In other words, the Christian life is not about pinpointing that day or hour – all real or imagined private revelations and apocalyptic predictions notwithstanding. Nor is it about trying to identify in advance which of our neighbors, according to Daniel’s prophecy [Daniel 12:2], shall live forever and which shall be in everlasting horror and disgrace. On the contrary, the Christian life is all about the how in the now – how we live and what we love in the here and now, what we make of this interval until the end – in other words, the durability and quality of our commitment and faithfulness for the duration. That’s what matters most over the long haul and will determine who we will be for all eternity. That is the wisdom which shall shine like the splendor of the firmament and lead many to justice [Daniel 12:3].
Meanwhile, we are fortified for that long haul by the durability and quality of Jesus Christ’s commitment and faithfulness to his Father, the same Christ who took his seat forever at the right hand of God [Hebrews 10:12], since then has been waiting – waiting with us and for us.
It was said of St. Martin of Tours, the famous 4th century soldier, monk, bishop, and saint, whom the Church commemorates every November 11: “Death could not defeat him nor toil dismay him. He neither feared to die nor refused to live.”
And that is about as good a summary of the Christian life in this passing world as one is likely to get!