The fall of my junior year in high school the United States had launched Operation Desert Shield, designed to keep Saddam Hussein out of Saudi Arabia while providing time to make preparations for the offensive that would be known as Operation Desert Storm. The passage of over twenty-five years puts the operations in perspective; we know the rest of the story. Coalition forces won an easy rout over Iraq in a matter of weeks with minimal casualties.
But though we know the outcome now a generation later, in the late summer of 1990 we didn’t. Reactions varied. My football coaches came up with new names for old drills as we suffered the “Iraqi shuffle” during two-a-days under the August sun. Some friends who had recently joined the National Guard, Army, or Marines were gung-ho about taking the fight to the enemy.
Others of us were much more fearful, for America’s point of military reference in 1990 was Vietnam, a conflict that was raging when we juniors and seniors were born. We had begun to come of age in the 1980s when the great Vietnam war films were made. Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and Full Metal Jacket were all released in 1987, right when we were at that age where our parents gave us a lot of freedom to go to the theater or rent earlier films such as Apocalypse Now.
These films reflected and reinforced the perspective that Vietnam was an unmitigated disaster, a quagmire into which young men very much like us were drafted to die for no good purpose, their bodies often lost to the ravages of the jungle in the fog of war. That was our point of reference, and so many of us were convinced we would be drafted, sent to the desert, and find our deaths there, our bones bleached by the sun.
Apocalypse Now. And Then.
However, many American Christians, particularly fundamentalists, evangelicals, and pentecostals, were oddly eager about then-current events, for they thought it meant the beginning of the end—the coming of the Apocalypse. This was War In The Middle East, the moment for which Christians had been waiting since Jesus’ ascension, the matter marking his imminent return. Apocalyptic speculation hit a fever pitch; Saddam Hussein was the Antichrist, and the events of Revelation were about to play out in real time.
But a funny thing happened on the way to Armageddon: coalition forces bombed their way to Baghdad in a matter of weeks. The war ended and no-fly zones were established in the north and south. President George H. W. Bush lost an election to Bill Clinton. The end of history as the dominance market capitalism came about thanks to the largely peaceful collapse of communism (who saw that coming in Revelation?). Francis Fukuyama, not any wild-eyed TV preacher, seemed the prophet of the times. Saddam Hussein remained in power until another President Bush would invade Iraq. Hussein was eventually captured, imprisoned, and, some time later, handed over to be hanged. Meanwhile the stock market marched forward toward a slow secular eschaton.
So much for Saddam as the Antichrist bringing the apocalypse. But many American Christians remained undaunted, ever finding new Antichrists-du-jour. While apocalypticism runs through Christian history, from the Chiliasts of the early Church to Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century to Millerites in the nineteenth, it seems particularly American nowadays, given the Christian-industrial-entertainment-complex that feeds on and fuels wide sectors of American Christianity, with offerings such as the best-selling Left Behind series. The search is always on for the next Antichrist.
Apocalyptic speculation often flows from weak faith; we have deep difficulties believing in the Jesus of the past, so we look for certain signs of God working in the present. Or it’s a psychological immanentizing of the eschaton rooted in the typical American allergy to suffering, where we want heaven now, without tribulation, where we’re cheerfully caught up to heaven, the rest of humanity left to endure all sorts of Satanic miseries on earth.
American Catholics are American, and so some are caught up in such speculation, though what the Church teaches in the Catechism is clear without any concern for speculative details. Towards the end the Church must pass through a final trial in which the Antichrist offers seeming solutions to human problems at the price of apostasy (CCC 675). In fact, the Catechism teaches that this deception is found every time men attempt to found heaven on earth in their own power, particularly in instances of “secular messianism” (CCC 676); it is God, not any man or State, who will triumph in Christ over evil in the world at the end of time (CCC 677).
That’s it. No clever poring over Ezekiel, Daniel, Mark 13, and Revelation to decipher the identity of the Antichrist. (My favorite option is L’Empereur Napoleon, which can add up to 666 if you tweak the numbers right, but that’s a story for another day.) Just a final purifying trial, the outcome of which is certain: God wins.
2017 and speculation
Lately, however, many Catholics have engaged in apocalyptic speculation, as it seems to them not only the world but also the Church is spinning apart. “2016, man.” Qualms about the Holy Father’s teaching and leadership have generated interest in the obscure prophecy of St. Malachy, which, read a certain way, indicates to some that Benedict XVI would be the next-to-last pope. An interview from 2008 has made the rounds in which Cardinal Carlo Caffara stated that Sister Lucia of Fatima believed the final battle between Jesus and Satan would concern marriage and the family, which for some makes Francis’ Amoris Laetitia a sign of the End. And now it is reported that St. Januarius’ blood did not liquefy as it was supposed to on December 16.
2016, man. And of course 2017 is the anniversary of the Reformation, Fatima, and the Communist revolution in Russia all rolled into one. 2017, man?
It’s easy in the age of the Internet to encounter all sorts of marginal comments and prophecies as well as the latest whispers from the loggia and couple them together to fit various figures into the dramatis personae of the narrative of our fears, or hopes. Barack Obama, Pope Francis, Donald Trump become our heroes or villains.
But this speculation is not Catholic, really. It’s not just the mistake of majoring in minors. Speculating about things that may or may not be signs of something is at the very least the bad stewardship of distraction. It’s also akin to the sins of sloth, acedia, and curiositas. It might be an incipient part of the Gnostic heresy, as we seek to join some sort of spiritual elite by discovering secret knowledge.
Catholics have knowledge already, revealed publicly. We have Jesus Christ, who gave us Scripture and Tradition. We know God, and are called to love him ever more. Apocalyptic speculation doesn’t serve that end. Think also about this: If we knew the time of the End, or if we knew that this or that world figure was a secret demon, or the Antichrist, or God’s hidden agent, would we live differently? We shouldn’t. Catholics ought to live as Catholics ought to live every day of our lives.
I sometimes think that apocalyptic curiosity is a bit like the lazy student who sluffs off his studies for the semester, and then hopes to cram for the final a day ahead of time; indolence and lassitude reign in hopes that last-minute discipline will cover a multitude of ignorance. That usually goes poorly. It shouldn’t take knowledge of the time of the End or finding in some figure the fulfillment of some obscure prophecy to motivate us to love God and neighbor, to cultivate the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Hope and fidelity
As regards hope, which concerns the End, we know (as the Catechism teaches) that the End will come at some time, there will be some trial before, and God will triumph. Whether in that eschatological tribulation or well before it, we are called to total fidelity in all trials, whether dealing with a crabby coworker, a nasty neighbor, or some government functionary ending our employment or fitting our necks for a noose.
Scripture teaches this, in the Gospel of Mark in particular. Mark’s Jesus instructs believers to reject the seeking of signs of the end. Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13, and the disciples, being good Jews who understand the Temple to be God’s dwelling and thus the center of the cosmos, believe that to be the End, and so they ask, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?”
Readers often miss it, but what follows is Jesus telling them not to seek signs. He speaks of the coming of false Christs, warfare, earthquakes, and famines. He speaks of persecution and even the abomination of desolation. In doing so, however, he warns the disciples, “the end is not yet.” He even tells them to “flee to the mountains” when the abomination becomes apparent and “pray that [their] flight may not be in winter,” because it’s hard to run away in winter. Jesus isn’t talking about the end of the world in that section. He’s talking about the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple at the hands of the Romans, which in fact happened in A.D. 70. If it’s the end of the world, where are they going to run to? Where would they hide?
Parts of Mark 13 deal with the end of the world, but there it’s obvious: the sun and moon fail, stars fall, heavenly powers are shaken. “Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (v. 26). There’s also the Parable of the Doorkeeper, which concerns the End and closes the chapter. Jesus tells the disciples, “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (v. 32). And because not even Jesus Christ knows, the disciples are to “Watch, keep alert,” precisely because “[they] do not know when the time will come.” They are to be ready—to live faithfully as Catholics—every single moment instead of looking for obscure signs. So too with us, today, as Jesus makes explicit in v. 37: “What I say to you I say to all—watch.” Perpetual vigilance, not speculation, is Jesus’ final watchword.
Catholics have been given signs, however. God has given the Church the signs of life that are the sacraments. These are the signs we are to seek. Instead of trying to find God doing something in an obscure way in contemporary events, we find God revealed, publicly available in the sacraments. Those are the signs we seek.
The Gospel of John makes this plain: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:30-31). Traditionally, it is understood that the first half of John’s Gospel presents seven miracles of Jesus as signs, from his changing of water into wine at Cana (Jn 2:1-11) to the revivification of dead Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45). In the middle stands the miracle foreshadowing the Eucharist, the Feeding of the 5000 that introduces the Bread of Life discourse (Jn 6).
These signs of Jesus point to the signs of the sacraments and ultimately to the sacramental sign that is Jesus himself. For the sacraments are rooted in the sacrament par excellence, the Incarnation. The divine Word, who was with God and indeed was God, became flesh and dwelt among us, making the Father known (cf. Jn 1:1, 14, 18). God’s sign to humanity is God himself come in Jesus Christ. Sign and signified are here one.
If it’s signs we’re after, we ought to seek signs that are certain and clear, the signs of the sacraments. If we could ever hope to interpret them rightly, the signs of apocalyptic speculation would at best reveal facts: the particulars of something happening in the divine plan. But the sacraments bring us Christ, and thus the sacraments reveal God himself. We can find God, today, in any sacraments available, especially in the Eucharist and so in adoration and the Mass. Fitting for this liturgical season’s complex of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, then, let’s seek the certain sign of Christ, and find God there.