“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine,” so sang REM nearly thirty years ago. Today we celebrate the end of time, the end of the world, that great and terrible day when Christ will return in glory to judge the living and the dead. How does this article of our Christian make you feel? Does Christ’s return, the date of which nobody knows, make you feel hopeful or frightened? If you can’t quite get your mind around Christ’s return, then simply consider your own mortality.
Christians call the spiritual discipline of contemplating one’s mortality memento mori, which simply means “remember death.” A number of years ago I listened to an interview with a retired international journalist. After he retired he went back and interviewed people he had met during his career who struck him as being happy for a book he hoped to write. One of the people he talked to was an elderly German man, a Christian, who shared this secret of his happiness: spend a few minutes every day reflecting on your own death. There is nothing morbid about doing this, it is an essential part of living well because, if nothing else, it helps you keep things in perspective.
Among the many stories handed on about St. Francis of Assisi is one that tells about a time he was in the community’s garden hoeing beans when he was asked, “What would you do if you knew the world would end today?” To which he calmly replied, “I suppose I would finish hoeing this row of beans.” In a similar vein Martin Luther once said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” This demonstrates that both Francis and Luther were people of hope. If the solemnity we celebrate today is about anything, it is about hope.
Of the three theological virtues (i.e., faith, hope, and love) without a doubt hope is the least understood. In English, we often use the words “hope” and “wish” synonymously. “Now hope that sees for itself,” St Paul wrote in his Letter to the Romans, is not hope.” After all, he went on to ask, “who hopes for what one sees?” The apostle insisted that “if we hope for what we do not see, we wait with endurance” and it is in hope that we are saved (Rom 8:24-25). Hope is the flower of faith and charity is its fruit. Stated a bit differently, faith gives birth to hope which, in turn, produces love. A Christian is joyful because s/he is hopeful. Hope is very different from optimism. Optimism is pragmatic, whereas hope is audacious.
The source of our hope is God’s love for us, which is not only as strong as death, but, as Christ’s resurrection shows us, is strong enough to conquer death. “In this is love,” we read in St John’s First Letter, “not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins” ” (1 John 4:10).
In the aftermath of our recent election, regardless of how you voted or even whether you voted, it’s important to reaffirm in what, or as a Christian, in whom you place your trust, that is, your hope (hope is more akin to trusting than to wishing). As the psalmist exhorts: “Put no trust in princes, in children of Adam powerless to save. Who breathing his last, returns to the earth; that day all his planning comes to nothing” (Ps 146:3-4). Rather, “Blessed the one whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD, his God, The maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them, Who keeps faith forever” (Ps 146:4-6). This is very same God who for us and our salvation became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, who was raised from the dead, who “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,” and whose “kingdom will have no end.” Everything and everyone else will ultimately fail you.
Our Gospel today demonstrates that the Cross is Jesus’ throne. One thief wanted immediate, instant proof that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah of God. He had no hope. The good thief, who tradition named St Dismas, after rebuking the other thief, demonstrated true hope when he humbly pleaded, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Jesus, gave him a promise he could trust: “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). My friends, there is no question about whether you and I are thieves, the only question concerns which thief you are.
Woody Allen once quipped that he did not want achieve immortality through his work, he wanted attain it by not dying. We laugh because we know exactly what he meant. Contrary to popular belief expressed in boring clichés, there is nothing natural about death. Death was not part of God’s plan. Death is the wages sin pays. Our desire not only to go on living but to continue living as ourselves is really what makes us human beings created in God’s image. It is to fulfill this, our deepest desire, that Christ became one of us. Let the words of St Paul from our second reading, which he likely took from an early Christian hymn, be our words on this day when we rejoice in Christ’s kingship:
Let us give thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:12-14)The word for what the Father has done for us in Christ by the power of their Holy Spirit is “mercy.” Today we bring to a close the year-long Jubilee of Mercy. While the Jubilee may be over, God’s mercy is without end. As recipients of God’s mercy, we, in turn, are to be ministers of mercy to others. We need to keep practicing the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy, not until we perfect them, but until our practice of them perfects us.
As we look forward to end of the world as we know it, let us feel fine by expressing our hope in the words of our Collect for today’s glorious solemnity:
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise