Christ is coming: Are we ready?
This has been a year of high anxiety, dire prognostications and — for some — even ostensible omens of doom. From historic wildfires in Australia and California to the deadly novel coronavirus that has sparked a global pandemic, to an unprecedentedly divisive and fraught election season, 2020 has been nerve-wracking, to say the least. (And let’s not forget about murder hornets and the asteroid Neil deGrasse Tyson warned might hit the earth!)
Small wonder that there has been a noticeable uptick this year in predictions and worries about the End Times. As a frequent listener to Catholic radio and close follower of many online Catholic discussion forums, I have noticed a marked increase in prophecies about the end of the world, and a sort of obsession with the foretellings of this event in Scripture and by mystics over the centuries. Actually, I’ve devoted a fair amount of time this year debunking some of the more outlandish claims of this sort. Therefore, it might surprise some who know me to read my pronouncement here: It’s true. The End Times are indeed upon us!
Living in the End Times
The good news is this is not news. It has been this way ever since God appeared in the flesh, as the man Jesus of Nazareth, two millennia ago; and each year, the Church reflects upon this fact that we are living in the End Times.
This invitation comes in the form of the holy season of Advent. It begins a few weekends before Advent. If one listens closely to the readings at Sunday Mass in the weeks approaching the end of each liturgical year, as well as to those during the first fortnight of Advent, the trend is easily discernible. In this year’s cycle, for example, the Scriptures of November’s Sundays contain lines such as, “Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” or “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” And on the final Sunday of the Church year, the solemnity of Christ the King, the Gospel tells of the final judgment, wherein the righteous will be separated from the unrighteous, “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Each year, the liturgical cycle takes this seemingly moribund turn. November is “the month of the dead.” In large parts of the Northern Hemisphere, this shift in liturgical focus mirrors the changing of the seasons: the foliage falls, and the days become shorter and colder. At the “dying of the year,” the Church turns its view toward the mystery of death and the coming of Christ that attends it, at the end of time, or at the end of each of our earthly lives.
In such a way, we prepare to celebrate that first coming of Christ, which began these “End Times” — for, the final of his public revelations was a promise to return soon (cf. Rv 22:20). Indeed, many early Christians seem really to have expected this to be within their lifetimes. They perhaps overlooked somewhat that other promise Christ made toward the end of his time walking the earth: that his Gospel must first be proclaimed before all the nations (cf. Mt 24:14). Those inclined to worry about the apocalypse then may at least take some kind of comfort in this: By the looks of things, we still have plenty of work to do in bringing that promise to fulfillment.
This reflection on the work left to do, however, must be at least as challenging as it may be comforting. The season of Advent and the preceding weeks of Ordinary Time mean to bring home this urgency to us, by focusing on the several “comings” — or “advents” — of Christ: first, his coming to each of us in the hour of our death; then, his coming at the end of time; and, in the days approximate and through Christmas, his historical coming to us in the flesh. Throughout this period, though — as indeed throughout the whole life of the Christian — the Church also wills that we never lose sight of the real upshot of the Incarnation — namely, that Christ comes to us daily, in prayer and sacrament. His presence can be found in every tabernacle of the world at any hour, or in the home of any of the baptized when he or she lives out the identity of our priestly people and prays, does penance or gives alms.
In all these various “advents” upon which we are called to reflect, the central question is the same — the central question as well of the season of Advent proper: “Are we ready to meet him when he comes?”
As St. John Paul II frequently reminded believers approaching the eve of the new millennium — another era marked by prophecies and portents of the coming apocalypse — Christians should not live in fear of Christ’s coming, either in death or at the end of time. Instead, they should turn and embrace the coming of Christ in the day to day.
The words Christ spoke to the Church at Laodicea as reported in Revelation should be a daily meditation for us: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” Do we hear his knocking? Are we prepared to welcome him in? If I may press the metaphor: Is our own house in the proper order to receive such a guest?
Lesson of Martha and Mary
This year has given all of us plenty about which to worry and be anxious. I think it a safe bet that next year will give us its own share of worrisome and distressing things. I also think it a safe bet that we’ll find plenty of time for such worries in our lives. But will we find too much time for them?
We must remember the lesson of Martha and Mary when Christ came visiting them at Bethany. The things about which Martha was concerned were not unimportant, nor unworthy of attention generally.
The problem was her focusing on them at that moment, in preference to the presence of Christ who had come and was in her home. Mary, on the other hand, attended solely to him and “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak” (Lk 10:39). This precisely was that “better part” Mary had chosen to which Christ refers in his gentle rebuke to Martha: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her” (Lk 10:41-42).
Advent provides us with an opportunity to make room in our lives for the choice of Mary and to set aside, at least for a time, that of Martha. It provides us a chance to put away worries about politics, or even pandemics, and focus on the one thing we need more than anything else: Christ’s presence in our lives.
This season is about preparing to welcome him, clearing out our spiritual homes and bestowing them fittingly so that, when he comes, we can just listen to him, learn from him. In doing this, we will find that, far from being a source of anxiety, this attention the Church so ardently desires from us — this focus on Christ’s promise to come back to us soon — is a great comfort. In taking up this burden, this “worry” (as it may seem), we find all other worries diminish.
For he tells us, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30).
We are doomed, one way or another, to bear some burden, to shoulder some yoke. Will we choose the better part?
Joe Grabowski is executive director of the International Organization for the Family. He writes from Pennsylvania.