Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-11-21: Solemnity of Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King
Samuel 5:1-3 / Psalm 122 / Colossians 1:12-20 / Luke 23:35-43
With today’s Feast of Christ the King the liturgical calendar comes to an end and the new church year begins next week on the first Sunday of Advent. The end of a year, by whatever calendar, sparks a bit of nostalgia, and a little dread, as some of us become more aware of our own mortality. The church uses this as a timely reminder that, one day, this world will end as well. Evangelicals have taken to this idea of a fast approaching end-of-the-world over the past century with more than a little enthusiasm. Jehovah Witnesses, for example, are noted to have declared (on more than one occasion) the date the end would come, only to have to reevaluate when they woke up the day after. Recently, the evangelical group that runs Family Radio has declared the end of the world will occur on May 21st – next year!

It is unnerving to hear that the end will come so soon and, according to Family Radio, that it will not be an easy end. There’ll be a lot of terrifying horror, decaying corpses and, of course, gnashing of teeth - more promise of hell than heaven. This type of Christianity, this kind of religion, I personally despise and find untenable. It does make you wonder though. If I don’t believe Family Radio’s claim, or others of similar ilk, am I ultimately not believing the Bible itself and, by extension, not believing in an afterlife at all?

It is probably THE most vexing problem in Christianity, this end-of-the-world business. Jesus seemed to have predicted an immanent end; and St. Paul was quite clear the end would come before his generation had died out. But as St. Paul approached his own end, he must have realized the end wasn’t going to occur, at least not the way he had expected. Did he bank everything on that part of his faith, one wonders; or was he able to let it go? We just don’t know.

Through the millennia there have been many who, like St. Paul, preached an imminent end. They were, without exception, very enthusiastic in their preaching. But all wrong. None right. When they had to answer their critics the day after the day the end was supposed to have happened, they inevitably chalked it up to human error, a matter of arithmetic not faith. We somehow believed right, they seemed to suggest, but figured wrong.

But the notion that the world will come to an end is no longer solely a matter for religious believers. Scientists, atheists, agnostics all believe that the universe will one day end; and they present a far more horrible end than even Family Radio. It’s just a matter of time, they say. Time is, perhaps, the root of the dilemma. When Einstein discovered relativity, he remarked that past, present, future are all illusory: Time itself being an illusion, a human construct.

Time, then, is a relative matter. [Then is a very strange word itself. In English, then can refer both to the past and the future]. In today’s gospel of the crucifixion the Good Thief used his last moments to offer a word of consolation to a stranger; and Jesus, in turn, promised him Paradise. The way the gospel phrases the promise is interesting to note. Remember the Greek in which the gospel was written didn’t employ punctuation – that was added (arbitrarily) with translations into the modern vernacular. Thus, in English orthography, you can read the promise either of two ways. First possibility: “Jesus replied to him: ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” But if we move just one of those commas ever so slightly, we read Jesus saying: “Amen, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Moving that arbitrary comma throws the immediacy of the promise of Paradise completely out of whack, suggesting perhaps that God’s eternity does not translate well into our time-bound existence; and that attempts to discern the date and time of Armageddon is a foolish diversion. The essence of Christian faith is not fear but love; and love – then - not fear, is then the present evidence of Paradise -- here and now, then and then.

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