Apocalypse Now?

Unfortunately Advent 1 is, in our day, more and more compelling. A year ago, I read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, about the crisis in Western society in the 15th century, and it had a familiar ring. An unexpected plague, the threat of radical Islam, eco-degradation, intellectual drift: all these factors combined to create a kind of apocalyptic foreboding. Is it any wonder our culture flocks to movies with this end-time edge? They are reminiscent of the darkened sun of this Sunday.

There are of course also reasons to be wary. Historical criticism can identify the cultural threats and worries of the time of the prophets being cited, as well as Jesus’ own time, not to mention those of the eras of Christian history that followed. We are hardly first to feel ourselves the last of humans. And yet this does not remove the cogency or the urgency of such a reading of Mark 13 or Luke 21. How then are we to read such passages as we balance passion and restraint?

Sometimes we as readers of the Bible lurch between two extremes. On the one hand, we suppose that the bible can mean whatever it subjectively and emotively says to each reader. Open season! Or on the other hand, we suppose it has one right reading that can be investigated and stated. It is more fecund than this. We do well to recall the more powerful interpretation of the Middle Ages. Bible passages spoke with multiple senses at one time, since reality itself is multi-layered, but not in a random or arbitrary way. A passage of the Bible first required us to understand its original setting, and so its historical meaning. At the same time each passage looked ahead or back to Jesus Christ, the center and standard of all historical meaning. It had the power to apply His meaning to our personal lives (in what was called the moral, or tropological meaning). Finally the Bible always looked forward to the end point and finale of history, to the eschaton, in what was called the ‘anagogical’ sense. Passages were as rich as truth itself, meaning all these at once.

What then of the sun being darkened and the moon turned to blood? The passage echoes the situation and attendant fears of the time of Jesus. It points to His own death, which is indeed the end of all things (and their new beginning) for humankind. It speaks of the apocalypse coming for each of us, when we shall come to an end and find ourselves before the judgment seat of God. And finally, it does, as ‘through a glass darkly,’ tell us something of what lies before the world on that real but mysterious last day. Apocalypse turns out to be then, his, ours, not yet now, each real, all together what we mean by ‘the end of all things.’



Time Travel

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On NPR yesterday, I heard about a recent indie movie by Peter Emshwiller called “Later That Same Life.” The writer had taped a video of himself asking the cosmos various questions when he was 18. Now he, at 56, has a conversation with that 18-year-old self. It is an evocative case of time travel for anyone, but may have a particular resonance for those with children, who have stirred up a memory of themselves at the same age as their offspring. What would you want to say to your earlier self (who is after all lurking inside you at all times anyway), and how would he interrogate you back? There is that old philosophical question about how things stay the same over time - how is it still you? And now this question takes on a pertinence and insistence in such an imagined encounter.

All this made me think of another example of “time travel” in my own experience. The great theologian of dialogue with Islam, Bishop Kenneth Cragg, once stayed in our house when he visited to receive an honorary doctorate. One afternoon over tea I asked him about the great Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. It turned out he had a bone to pick with Ramsey, who had, fifty years earlier, closed a program for young global scholars run by Cragg at Canterbury. The bishop was 90, and after a few moments he forgot he was speaking to me, and in the fading afternoon sun, was debating once more, directly, with Ramsey, as if his shade were there with us in the room. He had some sharp things to say. I was left wondering with whom I would have such hard questions to ask, were I to reach my ninetieth year. While this is not a debate with myself, it too was one taking place ‘later that same life,’ one that finally came to expression. With which shades is your life a running interrogation? For there is always such debates within us, whose reality is assumed when therapists have their clients talk to a pillow as the form of a parent or sibling years later. It may be that what we call ‘personality’ is in large measure just such running arguments, ‘later that same life.’

All of this made me think of a point made by St. Augustine in his Confessions. As moderns we easily think of that book as a spiritual journey of discovery. But that is not how he thought of it at all. The young Augustine sought just that, as he tried first one philosophy then another, one intense relationship after another. But he remains, in his famous expression at the beginning of the book, ‘restless.’ He finds God, and when this happens he realizes that his own search was incoherent. He was simply wandering, about the landscape, his own imaginings about himself too faulty and deluded to amount to a truly coherent self that could be found. The inner debates of which we have spoken were interminable and irresolvable (though they retain their own fascination). But Augustine also thought that, when we consider our lives, God turns out to be the prime actor throughout, drawing us to Himself by means of our responses to, and even our resistances to, Him. The source of coherence and the resolution of the debates are only found, retrospectively, from the vantage point of grace. The 18 and 56 year-old need both, and equally, to be interrogated by God, and the complaint we harbored for half a century will be answered, as with Job, before the throne. We are indeed one, whole person, at peace with our neighbor, ‘later that same life’ in a more radical a way than we might first have imagined.


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Complete the Race (II Timothy 4:17)

At the end of our vacation we find ourselves in Chicago for its Marathon weekend (the fastest, I have read this morning, perhaps because it is cool and relatively level). Marathons offer many good things. You can see world-class athletes from places like Ethiopia and Kenya. There is a feel of fiesta with signs by family members, getups by some for-fun runners, and food for sale.

But as I looked out my hotel window at 7:30 a.m., I watched the race of competitors who have lost legs or their use. Wheeling vehicles by arm for 26 miles means serious fitness and determination.

Those competitors were to me, this morning, a symbol of the Church too. For each is wounded. The larger family cheers them on. Each by grace has risen up to run the race. Ahead is the goal, the prize, the welcome home. We find the companionship of Jesus the Lord, there, and along the route too.