Throughout the eight years I attended parochial grammar school. I went to the 8 o’clock “school” Mass every Friday and Sunday. This time of the year, the end of November, always stirred up a great deal of anxiety in me. The scripture readings frightened me by painting a terrifying picture of a world in turmoil. The priest added to my fears by inevitably preaching on the Last Judgment. My young mind always had me burning in the eternal fires. Here are a few of the prophecies that scared me.
“At that time there shall arise Michael, the great prince, guardian of your people; it shall be a time unsurpassed in distress since the nations began until that time.” (Book of Daniel)
“Those in Judaea must flee to the mountains, and a person on a housetop must not go down and enter to get anything out of his house, and a person in a field must not return to get his cloak. Woe to the pregnant women and nursing mothers in those days…For those times will have tribulation such as has not been since the beginning of God’s creation until now, nor ever will be.” (Mark)
“After that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mark)
“Nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place; and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” (Luke)
“Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” (Malachi)
“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mark)
Church was frightening enough, but the world situation frightened me even more. When I was in grade school, 1954 to 1960, the United States and Russia were rattling nuclear missiles at each other. Right off our shores, Cuba was working with Russia to mount a nuclear arsenal against us. A nuclear war seemed inevitable. We even had nuclear attack drills in schools. Public basements were designated fallout shelters. Russia “conquered” the U.S. in the race to space with its launch of Sputnik. Mao Zetong’s communism was eating up
China. The Churches were suffering persecution in Eastern Europe and China. I feared that these events were the beginning of the end.
Today, as an adult, I’m no longer frightened by the biblical prophecies. I’ve learned that the Old Testament prophecies were meant to give hope. They were promising a day of reckoning that would come for the nations that threatened the people of Israel. In Jewish tradition this global purification of Israel’s enemies would mark the beginning of a Golden Age for Israel.
The New Testament prophecies reflected, post-facto, the horrific event of the destruction of Jerusalem and the burning of the 2 nd temple in 70 CE. The event was woven into the Gospels using apocalyptic vocabulary. It marked the end of the “old time,” and the beginning of the new post-resurrection time. It offered hope to the Christian community that was suffering persecution.
Today, these same prophecies are meant to give us courage as we navigate the threats and challenges that confront us. We’re in the midst of a pandemic. On one hand, it has compelled us to work together to combat the death and sickness it brought. On the other hand, this plague has shed light on the social inequality we live with that has weakened and hampered our response to this global crisis.
Today, these prophecies are meant to give us hope as we struggle with the present political turmoil that grips our country, and so many countries around the world. Today, even our Church is in crisis. These prophecies promise a new and better world.
This is the time of year when from the darkness, injustice, suffering and violence of our present world we turn to look to a new world to come. A world where we can work together in harmony to conquer our plagues. A world in which our differences enrich us rather that separate us. A world without threat or war. A world where children live without fear.
This is the time of year we’re invited to grasp hands with the author the Book of Revelation and rejoice in his vision: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. The former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.”
“I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”