So many are concerned about the ‘when’ of Christ’s return that they miss his presence in others.
The world didn’t end May 21 as some had predicted. Personally, I was worried it might until Matt Holliday’s eighth-inning two-run homer broke a scoreless tie and led my St. Louis Cardinals to a shutout win against the Kansas City Royals that day.
Humor aside, it seems lately that I cannot change the channel from baseball to the news without groaning “not again,” as yet another story of natural or man-made catastrophe makes the headlines.
But out of these tragedies we hear stories of heroism and of neighbors helping neighbors, of strangers helping strangers. In the midst of ruin and sorrow, people are experiencing the coming of Christ in others.
It is hard to look back on the past months without asking ourselves, “Is this the beginning of the end times?” Who can forget the horrible images of apocalyptic scale from the earthquake and tsunamis in Japan or the ravages of so many tornados. Here, I particularly think of all who suffered such terrible loss in Greeneville and Cleveland, in Birmingham, Ala., and in Joplin, Mo., in Bishop James V. Johnston Jr.’s diocese. Our heartfelt prayers go out to them.
Catastrophes know no boundaries, and no part of the world seems untouched recently. The Mississippi and Missouri rivers, like slow-moving tsunamis, continue to flood and submerge farmland and towns. Much of China is also suffering record flooding, and an immense volcanic eruption in Chile fills the skies with thick ash clouds. A super-toxic E. coli outbreak in Europe, like the raging wildfires in Arizona, spreads almost unchecked, defying even the best scientific efforts to contain and extinguish the deadly pathogen.
Wars and civil strife have erupted in various countries, and Christian minority populations abroad are brutally persecuted and churches bombed. Fear of nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue nations and terrorists creates national security concerns, and many wonder whether the economy will collapse. Evil is called good, and good evil (cf. Isaiah 5:20), even in our schools, and the addition of a record heat wave only adds to our general discomfort.
And then there are the personal apocalypses of a number of public figures, whose scandalous behavior has destroyed not only their reputations and careers but also their marriages and family life. Especially in the media there seems to be an almost perverse voyeuristic pleasure in watching others exposed to judgment. Perhaps this same attraction lies in part behind the psychology of apocalyptic speculation and so-called “rapture” scenarios that even Protestant theologians can’t agree on.
The apocalyptic passages and books of the Bible can be especially difficult to understand. When the Apostle Philip asked the Ethiopian official who was reading Scripture, “Do you understand what you are reading?” he responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8:31). The Church, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is our sure guide.
Certainly we must be ready, watching and praying, for Christ reminds us that he will come when we least expect (Matthew 24:44). But so many people focus on the “when” that they miss his presence now. I think this is the point Christ is making after his long discourse on the end times.
In the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), Christ tells us that those who will “inherit the kingdom” and be called “blessed of my Father” are those who fed him and gave him drink, who welcomed him in the stranger, and who clothed and visited him when helping those who are sick and imprisoned. In doing it to “the least of these,” they will not have missed the coming of Jesus. But those who have neglected “the least of these” will be the “cursed” ones,” for they will have missed his coming among them.