“What are we coming to? Where will it all end?” Who among us has not heard anxious questions like those, or asked them ourselves? What is going to happen, we ask, in Afghanistan and Iraq? Will the sorely tried people of those tormented countries ever enjoy peace? When will our brave troops be able to come home? Will there ever be peace between the Israelis and Palestinians? Must we look forward to endlessly continuing terrorist threats throughout the world, and in our country as well?
To these public worries we add our private fears. It may be a parent fearing the direction a teenage or older son or daughter is taking, or a young person frustrated and bitter at what seems to be rigidity and lack of understanding from his parents. God alone knows how many couples are struggling with marital difficulties: due perhaps to drink, to financial irresponsibility, or simply to love grown cold and turning to sullen resentment. Others are weighed down by illness — their own or someone’s close to them. Someone else is grieving over the death of a loved one.
Put all these occasions for anxiety and worry together, and we have ample reason for asking the questions with which we began: “What are we coming to? Where will it all end?”
There are plenty of people eager to offer us reassuring answers to these questions. I found one response years ago in the Reader’s Digest. Covering a whole page were quotations saying that the world was going to ruin. A note at the bottom told the reader to turn to a later page to learn the authors of all those dire prophecies. They were all from famous people who had lived a hundred to more than 2,000 years ago. The message was simple: “Cheer up! The world has always been in a mess. Things are no worse today than they have been many times before.” But does it really help to know that other people, in other times, had their problems, too?
Then there are the folks who try to cheer us up by reminding us that things are not all bad. A now-defunct newspaper in the city where I live used to print a smiley face on the front page every day above an upbeat story titled “Good morning news.” There are still magazine articles telling us that things are improving as the benefits of education, medical research, and scientific progress become more widely available.
These stories are true. There are advances. There is good news. But simply to claim that the world is getting better and better is nonsense. Many things are getting better; other things, however, are getting worse. Just one example: The number of children born out of wedlock in our country today, and growing up without a father, has soared in recent decades to previously undreamt of heights. The social and economic consequences of such broken family life are disastrous. On the whole, losses like those pretty well cancel out the gains.
To be told that things have been bad before, or that many things are getting better, may alleviate some of our anxieties. But such answers cannot banish our fears altogether. Our nagging questions remain: “What are we coming to? Where will it all end?”
Jesus Christ offers a radically different answer to those questions. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth nations will be in dismay . . . . People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken”(Lk 21: 25-28). Is that some kind of antique science fiction? What has that to do with us today? In reality, however, Jesus’ words speak directly to our present-day anxieties and fears. Jesus was using imagery familiar to His hearers to describe a world gone awry, times out of joint. Can there be any doubt that we are living in just such a time today?
Note what follows this bizarre-sounding description of a world coming apart at the seams: “But when these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand!” That is the core of Jesus’ message — as relevant for us today as when His words were first uttered. The very things that cause our fear are signs not of God’s absence, but of His presence. Jesus never promised that God would preserve us from anxiety, suffering, or even from catastrophes. He does promise, however, that God will be with us in the midst of even our greatest fear and our deepest disaster.
“When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads, because your redemption is at hand!” That is the Advent message as we cross the threshold into a new Church year. “Where will it all end?” we ask. Jesus gives us the answer: it will all end when we “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
How can Jesus tell us, in a time of high anxiety and widespread fear, to “stand erect and raise your heads”? Because this world, with all its horrors, is still God’s world. Come what may, God reigns.
When we hear of wars and terrorism — God reigns. When we are afraid to open the morning newspaper, or watch the evening news on television — God reigns. When we feel we are dying of fright in anticipation of what is coming for our world, our country, the Church, our loved ones — God reigns.
Whether we serve God generously, sacrificially, with love and joy in our hearts; or whether we desert and fail Him, engaging in the mad pursuit of our own happiness at whatever cost, a pursuit that has never succeeded and never will — either way, God reigns.
The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end; who was, who is, who will come again at the end of all things with power and great glory — the Almighty.