Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-11-14: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19-20 / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 / Luke 21:5-19
I wonder if there’s a direct correlation between people who buy lottery tickets, religiously, and those who take seriously predictions about the imminent end of the world. Both seem to bank heavily on very unlikely and improbable outcomes. You could say both have a lot of faith; but is it the kind of faith you would want to have?

Take the group who interpret the virtually undecipherable Mayan calendar as predicting the end of the world to occur on 12.12.12 - or was it 12.21.12? (I better get that right less I lose a week one way or the other). The recent end-of-the-world horror flick, 2012, did a lot to boost their bona fides. But certain evangelical Christians won’t be one-upped by a bunch of neo-pagan proto-Columbian indigenous Mexicans. The evangelical group that runs Family Radio has now made public the results of their long study of cryptic biblical references to the world’s end and have determined, without doubt, that 5.21.11 will be the day when the earth will be destroyed and the Rapture will take place. Of course, if asked to chose, I’d have to admit I’d skip the Rapture and go with the Mayans - nineteen months being nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not but the Irish have a saint, dating from the 11th century, famous for his prediction about the end of the world. He shares the same-sounding name as the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, from whom we get our first reading this Sunday. The Irish Malachy, not unlike Nostradamus, wrote cryptically about the end of the world and when it would come. What’s clear from his prophecy (and there’s not much very clear) is that the last pope will be named Peter, though it won’t be quite that straightforward. Some ardent Malachy fans now hold that the current Pope Benedict is the next-to-last pontiff to reign before the end. At the very least this should encourage more of us to pray for Pope Benedict’s continued good health – whatever we might think of his theology.

The Old Testament Malachi – a name meaning “messenger” – is classified by scholars as the last of the "minor prophets." To be a minor prophet is something to contend with, but to be the last of the minors might explain his attempt to gain some attention, painting a rather scary picture of how the end will come. But if we look more closely at the book of Malachi we might understand his concerns in a different light.

Malachi had probably been part of one of those Jewish families that suffered the loss of everything when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and all Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. He might well have been born in captivity. Thanks to the Persian conquest of Babylon, and the largesse of King Cyrus, the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland where, even after fifty years, the ruined city must have been a palpable reminder of the slaughter and destruction endured by a people who considered themselves God’s Chosen. With Persian help they rebuilt a Temple, though it was probably rather shabby compared to Solomon’s masterpiece. And their morals were sorely lacking. A lot of illicit inter-marriage was taking place, not to mention complete disregard for the Law. It is in this milieu that Malachi calls for a return to religious observance. The “end”, you see, had already taken place. As far as Malachi was concerned, people had a choice: either make the “end” continue, by living in degradation and immorality, or seek healing, build anew – get your act together. Far from threatening people with what might happen, Malachi reminded them of what they were meant to be.

Instilling apocalyptic fear (whether promoted by devotees of the Mayan calendar or biblically-proficient evangelical Christians), for all its talk about sin, punishment and damnation, just makes people less responsible for their actions not more so. It diverts our attention from the pressing problems and challenges of the here-and-now, as we allow ourselves to sink into anxiety and worry about a possible but improbable tomorrow. To put it into more contemporary terms: buy a lottery ticket if you want – but don’t quit your job just yet.

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