Then he said to his disciples, "The days will come when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it. There will be those who will say to you, 'Look, there he is,' or 'Look, here he is.' Do not go off, do not run in pursuit.
First generation Christians enjoyed high expectations and suffered great anxiety. Hearing the apocalyptic expressions of Jesus repeated by his immediate disciples many awaited the "second coming" at any time. He had died, had been raised from the dead, had ascended into heaven, why would he not return shortly to establish the Kingdom of God once and for all?
Twenty centuries later we cannot answer that question, despite many attempts to read the mind of God and decipher his ways. Some people, after a period of near hysterical anticipation, simply get tired and quit. The United States in particular experienced the ecstasy of several "great awakenings" and their inevitable collapse.
Some theologians attempted to solve the problem by stripping our religion of its apocalyptic expectations. Bishop Barclay, writer of a marvelous set of commentaries on the Bible, once observed that there are two kinds of churches, those who ignore the Book of Revelation altogether, and those who read only the Book of Revelation.
The "liberals" were the former; "conservatives", the latter. Liberal Christians favored stability which should lead to prosperity, big business, big government and "an end of history." They don't need all that religious uneasiness.
Conservative Christians stir the pot, appeal to the poor and disenfranchised, and look for the Lord to overthrow Big Business, Big Government and Big Church (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church.) The sooner, the better.
Disappointed liberals become ambitious for worldly things and sometimes become fabulously rich. Disappointed conservatives drop out of church; some become anarchists or terrorists. Both groups declare no faith in "organized religion," as if there can be any other kind.
Where is the Roman Catholic Church in all this? Certainly some members are liberal and others, conservative; but the official teaching and the formal liturgy simply acknowledge the prophetic disturbance without lending formal recognition or credence.
Many of the symbols of our faith -- candles, sheep, lambs, incense, angels, fire, virgins, saints, stoles, altars, ashes on foreheads, etc. -- appear in apocalyptic literature. Playing the conservative, I once restored the crucifix and several statues to a Catholic church, to the everlasting gratitude of my parishioners.
In a Roman Catholic reading of apocalyptic passages of scripture, especially of Revelation and the Gospels, we find reassurance during times of upheaval; these texts are not invitations to revolution. They are not threats to the wicked (who don't read them anyway) but consolation to the oppressed.
They are certainly not guarantees to the satisfied that you can enjoy prosperity in this world and happiness in the next. During the seventies and eighties some American Christians hoped for a global, thermonuclear war to bring about the Second Coming; they were that assured of their personal salvation! That reading is a bastard combination of liberal contentment with conservative upheaval. "Let's stop the game while we're winning!"
Nor do we support Steve Bannon's pessimistic theory of historical cycles. People are not vegetation; their decisions make history but cannot be predicted like the four seasons.
In today's gospel, the Church recalls Jesus' reassurance, to the effect, "Do not run about hysterically thinking the world might have come to an end; you'll know it when it happens!" We do not accept any theory of history which would expect certain developments to mature into universal peace and justice. Nor do we watch for signs that prefigure the End.
An old hermit was asked, "What would you do if you were told the world will end tomorrow?" He replied, "I would do the same as I did today: wake up and say my prayers, take my breakfast, and go to work in the garden."