This past weekend, the readings the Catholic Church used for Mass had a clear apocalyptic overtone. For those of you who are not familiar with apocalyptic literature, it is a series of texts that oftentimes speak of the end of the world. At the same time, we cannot reduce these passages to mere doom and gloom. True apocalyptic literature always points to something from the past, something that is going on in the present, and something that is pointing to the future.
Many who interpret the Book of Revelation fixate on future events, trying to guess when the end of the world will come. Christ, himself, in this weekend’s Gospel, dissuades this approach. Rather, we need to stop and first ask, “How would the people of Jesus’ time have experienced these texts?” The problem is, living over 2,000 years after these texts were penned, we don’t have the common experience of Jesus’ time to see the clear connections to what was being addressed in the first century. This is why trying to understand the cultural context of this literature is so key.
There is much, much more that could be said of apocalyptic literature, but one thing that is universal, regardless what interpretive lens you adapt, apocalyptic literature does tend to have the effect of scaring the “H-E-Double Hockey Sticks” out of us. (For those unfamiliar with this “americanism,” it’s a way of speaking of where we hope none of us end up after dearth for all eternity without…. you know…. using a certain word.)
In those days, I Daniel,
heard this word of the Lord:
“At that time there shall arise
Michael, the great prince,
guardian of your people;
it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress
since nations began until that time.
At that time your people shall escape,
everyone who is found written in the book.
“Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake;
some shall live forever,
others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace.
“But the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever. Daniel 12:1-3
Jesus said to his disciples:
“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.
“Learn a lesson from the fig tree.
When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves,
you know that summer is near.
In the same way, when you see these things happening,
know that he is near, at the gates.
Amen, I say to you,
this generation will not pass away
until all these things have taken place.
Heaven and earth will pass away,
but my words will not pass away.
“But of that day or hour, no one knows,
neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark 13:24-32)
When we read these passages, it is typical for us to fixate on the darkness of life: Wars, murder, the death of innocence, and cultural polarities. There is merit to gaze into this darkness, but not simply to make sure we occasionally ruin our day. Rather, we gaze into apocalyptic imagery and the sadness of our world to find light and hope.
Years ago, NASA and ESA scientists pointed the Hubble Space Telescope into what appeared to be a dark, empty part of the night sky. Some even questioned if this exercise was a waste of time, fearing that nothing would be seen other than more dark skies. What was captured was one of the most stunning images ever seen by Hubble. Thousands of unseen galaxies popped out of the darkness like Christmas tree lights. Applying this to our spiritual lives, it’s an odd paradox that, sometimes, to allow the light of faith into our hearts, we must first peer deeply into the darkness of our lives, even when it seems there is no light to be found.
This past Wednesday, I shared with my parishioners at Saint Olaf Parish’s bible study how St. Bede, in his commentary on the Gospel of Mark, saw these apocalyptic images not as a dark night getting darker with the Sun and Moon losing their light. Rather, he flipped the common interpretation and said that the reason the firmament losses its luminosity was because when the light of Christ enters our world, no other light is perceptible.
For the stars in the day of judgment shall appear obscure, not by any lessening of their own light, but because of the brightness of the true light, that is, of the most high Judge (Jesus Christ) coming upon them; although there is nothing to prevent its being taken to mean, that the sun and moon with all the other heavenly bodies then for a time are really to lose their light, just as we are told was the case with the sun at the time of our Lord’s Passion. But after the day of judgment, when there shall be a new sky and a new earth, then shall happen what Isaiah says: “Moreover, the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold.” (Cantena Aurea – St. Thomas quoting St. Bede – Chapter 13 of Mark)
As the season of Advent approaches, I shared with them that the image of Sun, Moon, and Stars not shining due to the joy of Christ breaking into our broken world is a perfect backdrop for the season of waiting. Also, in the spirit of seeing these images as poetic metaphor, we are to allow the light of Christ to shine through our thoughts, words, and actions, becoming, in the imagery of the prophet Daniel, like the stars of the firmament. As I have shared with you before, we encounter in these texts the true meaning of stars and celestial objects in the Bible: Symbolic of angels and people, of you, of me, and our common call to allow Christ’s light to shine through us, waiting in joyful anticipation for the one true light that will chase away all of our darkness.
Spiritual Exercise: What are the “darkened skies” you see in the world today? What are the areas of personal darkness you struggle with and desire the love of God to heal? As we prepare for the beginning of Advent in two weeks, beg the Lord to break into our world with his light of hope. Let us joyfully anticipate the coming of Christ into our hearts to dispel the darkness of sin and illuminate us with the light of forgiveness. And may we allow the light of Christ to shine through us, avoiding the tendency to see apocalyptic literature through the lenses of gloom, darkness, and fear, choosing, instead, the true interpretive lenses of faith, hope, and love.