Jesus's words in the Gospel today are grim. He speaks of 'signs in the sun, moon and stars, nations in agony, the clamour of the oceans, men dying of fear because of what menaces the world, the powers of heaven shaken ' And he warns us to be on the watch or 'that day will come upon you suddenly, like a trap'.
This is just one of several grim scripture passages that we read at Mass at this time of year. It may seem strange to be doing this when we are beginning to look forward to Christmas. But it is also the low point of the year, the time of darkness, cold and sickness, and that may remind us how we often think pessimistically of the future of the world as an impending disaster. In the 1960s and '70s there was deep anxiety that nuclear war would destroy human life. Now what we fear is a future of global warming and climate change, leading to huge population shifts and savage wars over diminishing resources. At the same time we have another fear that a massive asteroid could strike the earth and wipe out human life, like the dinosaurs.
Why do we feel drawn to these horrifying scenarios of the end of humanity? Are they real? And why, at the same time, do so many human societies have a primeval happiness myth at the beginning of their history? Why do we imagine a blissful start, but expect a disastrous ending?
I think it makes sense to suggest that the beginning and end of this global human story is based on the personal story of each one of us. We begin life in the security of the womb where everything is provided. That security gradually diminishes as we have to provide for ourselves and accept adult responsibility. But, unless we meet sudden death, the life of each of us slowly winds down through weakness, diminishment and suffering to the ultimate stripping of death. That is something we long to avoid, yet we are drawn to it like the river to the ocean. We cannot escape. Since this is true of each of us, we suppose it is also true of the human race as a whole. We started well, but we will end in agony.
This story of the beginning and end of human life is taken seriously by Christian revelation because it is part of our reality. It is not sidelined; nor is it simply replaced by another completely different story. It is incorporated into the Christian story and so is transformed, redeemed and given meaning. That, I suggest, is the key to understanding these grim parts of the Gospel.
The Christian story of our beginning is the Garden of Eden, which says that we came fresh and perfect from the hands of God, but which also gives the reason for the sin and suffering that we meet in life. The Christian story of our end is what Jesus is talking about in today's Gospel. Our end comes with fear and suffering. As individuals, we will meet this in the dissolution of part of our very being, our bodies. As a human race, it will come with the ultimate passing away of our home, this transitory earth.
But Jesus gives this story a completely new twist. This agony, this time of distress, which Jesus says we will have to suffer, is bound up with the appearing of the Son of Man and the gathering of all the faithful. The prophecy of Daniel, which Jesus is alluding to, speaks of one like a Son of Man, not so much coming to us, but rather coming on the clouds of heaven to God the Ancient of Days, and bringing us with him as his chosen ones, people of all races, nations and languages. The time of distress is, somehow, the way by which we come with Jesus to the Father.
This coming of the Son of Man in his death and resurrection is in fact the climax of history, and gives meaning to all that is, visible and invisible, and in particular to the distress that accompanies it. The time of distress that Jesus warns us about is not some particular moment in future history; it is our continual struggle with evil that constantly puts us to the test. And so Jesus warns us to be on the watch, to be faithful, 'praying for the strength to survive all that is going to happen'.
The suffering of sickness, old age and death, as well as the suffering of persecution, injustice, famine and disaster are all part of our human story, and are therefore somehow inevitable. They are part of the time of distress. But because of the death and resurrection of Jesus they are now linked with his coming in glory and with the definitive appearing of the Kingdom of God. That is how our sad human history is transformed into hope and fulfilment, for each of us individually and for the whole human family. We can face with assurance our own personal future, and that of the human race, and 'stand with confidence before the Son of Man'.