The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The End Is Near...Or Is It?

A lot of people just flat-out don't like what the Church teaches. A few weeks ago, as I was pushing my grocery cart down the frozen food aisle of the local supermarket, a man, apparently recognizing me from church, approached and asked why deacons were allowed to preach. When I explained that we, too, were clergy and had been lawfully given faculties to preach by our bishop, he expressed amazement. "You can't be clergy," he insisted. "You're married and have jobs just like the rest of us." And so I took a moment to explain the diaconate as briefly as possible, ending with a comment like "...and that's what the Church teaches." He just looked at me and muttered, "Well, it's stupid," and walked away. Interactions like this make one want to avoid the grocery store.

Of course, such attitudes aren't restricted to just one end of the theological (or ideological) spectrum. Just a few days ago an acquaintance informed me, "I have prayed extensively about this, and realize now that the Holy Spirit wants me to fight the Church actively on these issues [women's ordination, homosexual marriage, celibacy, et al.]." It would seem that she believes the Holy Spirit works in her but not in the Church...except perhaps through her.

Such events seem to be occurring more frequently; that is, these encounters with people who just can't tolerate the fact that the Church doesn't reflect their personal beliefs on one issue or another...and then get quite upset about it. Instead of praying that the Holy Spirit will lead them to come to an understanding and acceptance of what the Church teaches in truth, they seem to believe they are actually holier than the Church. It's all very interesting...and more than a little sad. Perhaps we should remind them of how Paul described the Church: "the Church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of truth." (1 Tim 3:15)

Similarly, I have recently encountered more than a few Catholics who apparently accept millenarianism and such concepts as the rapture. Some, influenced by popular fiction addressing the end times, are truly shocked when I tell them that the Church has consistently condemned these doctrines as false. Others learned about these doctrines while attending non-denominational bible study programs where such beliefs are not uncommon. I always encourage them to come and join our parish's Scripture study, so they will learn what the Church teaches.

Talking about the end times is, of course, interesting to most Christians, and always leads to a lot of discussion. In our parish Bible Study we've spent months making our way slowly through the Gospel of Matthew. I actually facilitate two sessions each Wednesday, one in the morning and a second in the evening. They're not quite in sync, with my morning session running a few chapters behind the evening session. Considering the fact that we've been studying Scripture together for at least five years now, and keeping in mind that each group has a very distinct personality and approach to Scripture, I'm amazed that the two sessions are both studying the same book.
Anyway, last Wednesday the evening group began Matthew 24 in which Jesus gives His disciples some glimpses into His Second Coming and the events that will precede it. Among many Christians there seems to be an overwhelming  need to predict or, at the very least, to know exactly when all these things will come to pass. I have never understood why so many are determined to slap a date and time on these eschatological events. It's a fascination that escapes me, especially since Jesus was so clear about telling us He will come at a time we can neither know nor expect. As Matthew relates Jesus' words:
"But of that day and hour mo one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone." (Mt 24:36)
...and later, after telling the disciples to be prepared always, He said:
"So, too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come." (Mt 24:44)
...and again, as He summarized the Parable of the Ten Virgins, He said:
"Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour." (Mt 25:13)
And yet, despite Jesus words, some Christians simply can't resist predicting the end. The latest to do so is radio evangelist Harold Camping, who has declared that the beginning of the end will take place on May 21, 2011. That's only two months away, folks, and a good year sooner than the 2012 date supposedly predicted by the ancient Mayans. Camping isn't new to this end-of-the-world prediction business. Almost twenty years ago, he called for the end on September 6, 1994. Apparently he was wrong, the result, Camping believes, of a mathematical error on his part. But this time, based on his 70 years of studying the Bible, Camping claims that his calculations are spot on. It would seem he believes the so-called "rapture" will take place on May 21 and the end of the world on October 21.

Camping may have been studying Scripture for 70 years, but the Catholic Church has been studying it for nearly 2,000 years, and the Church is pretty certain we are not in the final stages of the end times, those days immediately preceding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And as I stated above, the Church has also condemned those doctrines -- various forms of millenarianism -- popular among some Protestants that declare the coming of Jesus, followed by a thousand-year reign, and His departure. Jesus, the Church teaches, will come again in one definitive, triumphant and everlasting reign. It will not be limited in either time or extent. Oh, yes, and the Church also teaches that there will be no "rapture" as it is popularly depicted today.

Of course Camping is not alone. There have been hundreds of similar predictions over the years. I recall one author -- Michael Drosnin, who wrote an odd book, The Bible Code -- and who predicted that a global nuclear war would kick off the end times in either 2000 or 2006. And then there were all those people caught up in biblical numerology who divided 2000 by 3 and got the ominous Satanic result of 666.666666..... This was obviously a sign that the end would begin with the Y2K crisis. Oh, there have been more, many more, but probably my favorite was a bizarre story going around back in the 90s that Pope John XXIII had predicted in 1962 that we would be visited by aliens arriving in chariots of fire. They would eliminate all disease and help us live to be 200 -- a prediction obviously buried someplace among those documents of Vatican II. How weird.
Although all these end-times predictions can be humorous, some of these false prophets are very charismatic individuals who attract quite a following. And all too often they seem to develop a form of egomania that leads to tragic results. Jim Jones, David Koresh and Marshall Applewhite are some recent examples that come to mind. Yes, it's all very sad, which is why I don't encourage people to spend a lot of time reading all those popular books -- many of them written by Catholics -- that focus on the end times in a sensationalist sort of way. It would be much better if we spent our limited time on earth preparing for our own end of the world, the day we stand before Jesus in judgment. I have a hunch -- certainly not a prediction -- that for all of us alive today, that day will come before the day the world ends.

Pax et bonum...


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