“But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mt 13:32-33)
The summer of 1967 was hard on a kid in Chicago. At nine years old, I was aware of world events in a way that was unusual for a kid that age. The civil disruptions associated with the anti-war and civil rights movements were not lost on me; our neighborhood was red-lined and I had cousins who were Chicago cops. Air was literally unbreathable, and swimming in Lake Michigan was, well, treacherous. The 1967 war in Israel (in the midst of the Cold war) was couched in apocalyptic terms that even a kid could intuit. And there was immense personal, family tragedy. So when the tornado sirens sounded for real within the city boundaries that summer and Mom hunkered us kids down in the southwest corner of the basement (where we were told it was safest) under the table that held my Lionel train, provisioned with a transistor radio, a loaf of Wonder Bread, candles, and rosaries – well, it seemed like the end could indeed be near. I mean, as in “The End.”
It didn’t help that Mom was muttering, “Well, that Old Man upstairs must be really mad about something!” I knew He (capital H, back in the day…) couldn’t be mad at me, or at my family. I mean, we were pretty good people. God must be mad at, like, everybody… as in, the whole world. Otherwise, why would everything seem to be collapsing around us? Why else would we feel so powerless over these genuinely scary things? Praying the rosary in the basement on Wabash Avenue was something, at least something, we could do. And even if those prayers couldn’t change God’s mind, maybe He’d look kindly upon our little-huddled family amid the mess and, well, watch out for us.
Fifty years later, and we still live in scary times. But the world did not end then, and it will probably not end now. In the interim plenty of scary (9-11) and also amazing (Chicago Cubs) things have happened. Certain Christian groups like to read the Bible, especially the Book of Revelation, as a literal foretelling of what will happen in the secular day-to-day world -– and (spoiler alert), according to them things don’t look so good. They see in the headlines certain proofs of an impending end, “The End.” And they have plenty of material to work with: war, terror, famine, drought, storms, earthquakes, floods, fires, riots. Now, that is scary stuff indeed! But not scarier than the summer of 1967. Or September of 2011. Or June 1944, August 1945. Or…
In the month of November, the church turns its gaze toward what is sometimes called “The Final Things.” Death, heaven, hell, purgatory (yes, we still believe in that), and The End. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls lead the month off with a reminder that on the other side of the veil awaits the Mountain of the Lord of Hosts. We have all loved people who have crossed that river. Many of them are assured of eternal blessedness; many more we are unsure about.
Saint Francis said, “You are who you are before God, and no one else.” So we pray for them now as much as we did while they lived. Maybe we pray even more, that whatever might still be holding them back from surrendering to the mystery of God’s mercy might melt in the gaze of God’s infinite unfathomable love.
As Christians, we face the end – our personal end, and The End – not as a threat but as a fulfillment. When I die, my life project is complete. When creation ends, God’s project is complete. Completion, not destruction. Eternity, not end. The term paper is handed in, the job foreman signs off, done. And then, celebration! The dorm party, the beer at the corner bar. And for those who are in for the long haul, a banquet that never ends, a permanent party!
When Jesus talks about these things in the Gospels, we notice this: he seldom talks about what it is like on the other side; when he does, he describes it like a feast; and he redirects our attention to the here-and-now. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Jesus says that he himself doesn’t even know when it will all happen. (So, how can the TV preachers know? Subject for another reflection…) So what should we do in the meantime? The Gospel instructions are simple: Be watchful and alert. Don’t be caught off guard, inattentive, asleep. In other words, LIVE!
The ancient traditions associated with Halloween have less to do with celebrating ghouls than with defying them and mocking them. Many cultures take a holiday on November 2, heading to family cemeteries to spend time with those who are beyond time. Lit candles on the graves of loved ones, or even of strangers, is a defiance of light against darkness. Flowers at graves are signs of brightness against darkness, life against death. A glass of tequila on Abuelo’s grave, or maybe vodka for Dziadek or schnapps for Opa, is an ironic toss of spirit toward spirit that says to the Netherworld, “You do not have the last word here!”
So as we all lurch through another tumultuous moment in our personal and collective histories, uncertain of our future and unclear about the present moment, let’s open ourselves to those moments, however fleeting, that breathe life and light into the darkness that tempts us with despair and capitulation to that which is unworthy of our surrender. Because fifty years after that tornado tore through Chicago and the Holy Land erupted along with our own city streets, I am still here. Writing to you, praying to God, and remembering my Mom who now knows that the Old Man upstairs is not really very angry after all.