I'm sure you've seen the cartoons of the old man walking through the city streets holding a sign saying, "The End is Near!" No one takes him seriously. But that's what Jesus tells us in today's Gospel reading. He speaks of the "days [of] tribulation" and the sun being darkened, the stars falling from the sky, and the Son of Man coming in the clouds to gather up the elect from the ends of the earth. The End Times.
It sounds like a Hal Lindsay book (or a Kirk Cameron movie), doesn't it? Our Evangelical and Fundamentalist brothers and sisters tend to be a bit more concerned with the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ than Catholics typically are. But each year at this time, as we approach the end of the liturgical year, our readings start to focus more on the end of all things.
We are preparing the Advent, which will start in two weeks, after the final great celebration of Ordinary Time, next Sunday's feast of Christ the King. The word advent comes to us from the Latin for "coming," and it refers not only to Christ's first coming as a newborn baby at Christmas, but also to his second coming in glory at the end of time. Like the first Christians who believed Christ would return during their lifetimes, we continue to look forward to the second coming of Christ to this day.
We live in an area surrounded by Protestant Christians, many of whom have rather different understandings about the end of time than the Catholic Church has traditionally held. Many of you have no doubt heard of "the Rapture," an event in which all the faithful Christians will supposedly be taken up into the sky to meet with Christ, after which they will be removed from the earth while the period of tribulation takes place -- a horrible time of trials and testing, giving sinners one last opportunity to repent before the end of time.
We hear about this from many of our Protestant friends, but we don't hear about it at all from our Catholic pastors. Why is that? Well, there is a good reason. It's not what the Church believes about the Second Coming. Truth be told, it's not what most Protestants believe, either. The idea of a pre-tribulation rapture was unheard of in Christianity until the 1800s, when it was formulated by a man named John Nelson Darby, an early leader of the Fundamentalist movement.
Darby is the father of what is known as Dispensational theology. Darby's theology was picked up by a man named Scofield who published Darby's view in his Scofield Reference Bible, which was sold widely across America and England. And so Darby's view of the Rapture became more widely held, especially among Fundamentalist and Evangelical Protestants; it has even found its way into more mainstream Protestant circles. But it is utterly foreign to Catholicism.
If you'd like to read a bit more on different Christian's views on the Rapture and the End Times, and what the Catholic Church teaches about them, I refer you to this brief article by Catholic Answers.
So what do Catholics believe about the end of the world? Most importantly, we believe that it will happen. Not just an end to our little planet Earth, but an end of all things, of all time. We live in a finite universe. All of creation had a beginning, and it will have an end. Our story will come to a close.
We do believe that Christ will come again, as we pray each time we recite the Nicene or Apostle's Creed. We believe that the Second Coming will occur at the end of time (not at the beginning of some thousand-year earthly reign of peace here on earth). And we believe in the general resurrection -- that is, at the end of time all the dead will be raised from the earth. The righteous will be gathered together with Christ, while the unrighteous... not so much.
As the first reading today from Daniel attests, "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some shall live forever, others shall be an everlasting horror and disgrace."
And most importantly, we don't pretend to know precisely when this will take place. We don't comb through books like Daniel and Revelation, looking for some secret code or formula that will tell us the precise day and hour of the Second Coming. If you see or hear of anyone doing this, don't give him the time of day. For Christ himself has said, "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mk 13:32).
But that day is coming. Of that we can be sure. And whether the end of time will be tomorrow or billions of years from now, we each will face our own "end time" in our lives comparatively soon. Any of us could die this hour, or eighty years from now. But we will die, and we will face our own judgment, in anticipation of the final judgment to come.
Are you prepared for that this day? This is the message for us as the Church year draws to a close, as we think of the end of all times, and look forward to the advent, to the coming of our Lord in glory. May we be among those standing ready to welcome Him in joy and in love.