One of the constants in American history has been the periodic appearance of movements and people preparing for some sort of impending calamity, real or imagined, including even the end of the world. Usually they are fringe groups at the margin of mainstream society, although sometimes the anxieties are more reality-based and more widely shared. I think back, for example, to the fallout shelter movement in the early 1960s, which was actively promoted in New York, where I lived, by no less mainstream a person than Governor Nelson Rockefeller and was also taken seriously and discussed within the Kennedy Administration, as well as in the pages of the weekly Jesuit magazine America.
Anticipating an actual and total end to the world may be more than most contemporary disaster-worriers really care to contemplate. But it does have a long history. Add to that the prospect of divine judgment, and we can get into some really scary stuff! No surprise then that the early Christians – who took both the end of the world and divine judgment very seriously - prayed, in the third century: “for Emperors, their ministers, for the condition of the world, for peace everywhere, and for the delaying of the end” [Apologetics, 39].
To us today, living in a world that is at least as dangerous and disorderly if not more so, and where we hear right away about every terrible thing that happens almost anywhere in the world, to us that sounds like a familiar enough list – except for the final petition, which we seldom give much thought to, even while we pray every day at Mass for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Yet that “end” is precisely what the Church calls on us to contemplate today, as indeed we do every Advent.
Dies irae, dies illa, solvet saeclum in favilla: teste David cum Sibylla. O day of wrath, O dreadful day, when heaven and earth shall pass away, as David and the Sibyl say. So begins one of the most famous Latin liturgical hymns, a hymn especially suited to the spirit of Advent. (When I was growing up, before our feel-good therapeutic culture took over, those words were sung at every Catholic funeral). Advent acknowledges the fear people have always felt about what lies ahead. As Jesus himself said in today’s Gospel [Luke 21:25-28, 34-36], People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world.
Recent events have highlighted how dangerous our world is. We hardly need Advent to warn us of what is coming upon the world. Advent, however, is also about hope. The Jesus who said all those scary things also said, when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand. And so it seems somehow especially fitting that at this time of national and international tension and worldwide worry, that the Church is about to announce the good news of God’s grace and mercy even louder than usual with an Extraordinary Jubilee, a Holy Year of Mercy, and is inviting us to put our fears behind us, to stand up and raise our heads, as Jesus said, and go on pilgrimage together, literally and spiritually – literally, to the Holy Doors in Rome or at least to the local Door of Mercy right near us at our cathedral church.
“God,” Pope Francis has reminded us, “always shows us the greatness of his mercy” and “is always with us in order to help us go forward. He is a God who … is with us, to help us, to strengthen us, help us go forward. … Always forward!” [Angelus, December 15, 2013].
We will certainly have plenty to worry about this year – as in every year. We all have our individual anxieties, our unfulfilled longings, and our painful memories of lost opportunities and ruptured relationships, all of which seem to haunt us even more intensely at this festive time of year and in this conflicted, war-ravaged world. But in the midst of all this, Advent challenges us to recognize the coming of Christ bringing light into anxious lives and a worried world.
In the words of Paulist founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, There is little or no hope at all of our entering into the kingdom of heaven hereafter, if we are not citizens of it here. If Christ is to be to us a savior, we must find him here, now, and where we are; otherwise he is no Christ, no Saviour, no Immanuel, no “God with us.”
Homily for the 1st Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 29, 2015.