It’s mid-November. In the northern hemisphere, autumn’s splendor has faded and it’s too early for good snow. Much of the world seems to be cold, damp and drab. It’s a perfect time for some apocalyptic religiosity.
Although apocalyptic visions are famous for their dreadful details, disaster is only their context, not their message. The word apocalypse comes from two Greek words that together mean to uncover or reveal; apocalyptic visions and literature propose to reveal the redemptive potential of what appears to be a situation of personal and/or global disaster.
Although doomsayers in every age have amassed evidence that theirs was the worst of times, the turmoil and tragedy of our era give us every right to lament. There might not be an epoch of upheaval like ours since the century between Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (1436) and the Council of Trent (1545-63). That era saw the discovery/invasion of a previously unimagined hemisphere eventually named America and the mushrooming of the African slave trade. During that century, the Reformation sundered Europe’s religious unity and Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuits, the most unmonkish of religious orders. Everything that had given stability to the western world was up for grabs.
We might mark the beginning of our epoch with the 1960s moment when earthlings orbiting the moon sent us pictures of Earth that revealed the big picture irrelevance of the national borders pretending to divide and define our globe. Science has taught us that evolution is our history, and technology allows us to speak face-to-face with people anywhere on Earth while Google helps us overcome our language barriers. It would all be very hopeful if it weren’t so terribly frightening to lose our traditional stability and certainties.
More frightening than our losses are some truly novel elements of our 21st century context. We are in a climate calamity. Social media includes an uncontrollable and too-often irresponsible explosion of (mis)information. Churches feel the loss of traditional religiosity among both sincere and apathetic sectors of our societies while new, varied and vibrant perceptions of our humanity have broken open our old categories of gender, race, class, nationality, etc. As in the 16th century, it seems everything that once created stability has gone up for grabs. Perhaps we should rephrase a carol we’ll soon be hearing ad nauseam and sing, “We’re in our own apocalypse, right this very minute, we’ve got our own apocalypse now!”
Apocalyptic visions do seem to focus on catastrophe — to wit, Daniel’s “time unsurpassed in distress,” and Jesus’ prediction that the sun will be darkened, the stars falling and the powers in heaven will be shaken. Nevertheless, Daniel’s disaster sets the scene for the appearance of Michael, the angelic helper. Then, when Jesus talks about the fearsome signs, he explains, “When you see these things happening, know that the Son of Man is at the gates.”