Detail from "The Apocalypse" by Luca Signorelli, fresco in Orvieto Cathedral, San Brizio Chapel, Orvieto, Italy (1499-1502)
Ps 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9
Advent is apocalyptic.
you’ve never thought of it in that way. But today’s readings are
revealing. I say “revealing” because the word “apocalypse”, from the
Greek word apokalupsis, means “to reveal” or “to unveil”.
Unfortunately, it has become primarily associated with destruction and
violence. But even that understanding is somewhat accurate even if it
only hits part of the target.
Today’s Gospel reading, from Matthew
24, is one of three “little apocalypses”, the other two being found in
Mark 13 and Luke 21. These discourses by Jesus about coming events are
complex and difficult, in part because they use methods of Old Testament
prophecy in speaking of the future, in part because they refer to both
the destruction of the Temple (A.D. 70) and the return of Christ at the
end of time. One reason for this is that the destruction of the Temple
by the Romans was, in a very real sense, the end of the world for devout
Jews since the Temple embodied God’s covenant with the Jewish people
and was considered the dwelling place of God’s glory. Jesus himself is
the new Temple (Rev. 21:22), the fulfillment of everything the Jerusalem
Temple pointed toward, most importantly the radical, transforming, and
eternal communion of God with man.
Speaking to his disciples on
the cusp of his Passion, Jesus exhorts them, “Therefore, stay awake!”
There are words worth repeating to ourselves throughout the seasons of
Advent. Wake up! Rouse yourself! Be alert! Why? Because the King is arriving. The adventusthe
“arrival” or “coming” of the Lordis fast approaching. “So, too”, Jesus
told the disciples, “you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do
not expect, the Son of Man will come.”
A big problem, as Monsignor
Ronald Knox pointed out, is simply this: “We want Our Lord to come, but
not just yet.” Like Augustine, we find ourselves torn between wanting
to fully commit ourselves to Christ while also holding on to those
things that keep us from him: “Give me chastity and continence, but not
yet.” Advent is a challenge against comfort, a call to stay awake, an
invitation to confession.
“The drama of Advent,” wrote Knox, “is
that when we see everything going wrong with the world, we are tempted
to be indifferent about it all.” This drama is also a paradox.
Non-Christians (and, alas, many Christians) think that such focus on
eternity keeps us from being committed to doing good in this world. But
the Apostle Paul would have none of that false notion. He warned the
Christians in Rome that they must awake from sleep and “throw off the
works of darkness” so they could “put on the armor of light” and conduct
themselves properly. Holiness does not grow when heaven is forgotten;
on the contrary, holiness on earth is the fruit of heaven growing within
us. Such growth cannot and does not take place without destruction and
violence: the dissolution of darkness and the death of sin.
go even further back, to the prophet Isaiah, who wrote of a coming time
when all nations would stream toward the house of the Lord. Isaiah
recorded a promise of salvation and a warning of judgment. This great
work of salvation, however, requires humility and repentance. Walking in
the light of the Lord only happens when we accept both his judgment and
his mercy, acknowledging our desperate need and his gracious gift.
is the end of the Old Covenant,” explained Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar,
“which genuinely looked for God’s coming.” The advent of the New
Covenant took place two thousand years ago. But God’s coming also takes
place at every moment, which is why Paul wrote of the nearness of
salvation while warning against the darkness of sinful pursuits. And it
will be completed at the final advent, the Second Coming, which is why
Jesus exhorted the disciples to be prepared at every hour for the hourthe hour of revealing, of apocalypse.
(This "Opening the Word" column originally appeared in the November 28, 2010, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)