A few weeks ago I happened to be caught in afternoon Milwaukee expressway traffic. It was one of those beautiful late summer afternoons in Wisconsin, and I was completely surrounded by folks on their way to an afternoon Brewers’ game at Miller Park. Traffic was stalled in every direction as cars attempted to maneuver into the lane of preference for parking. When one is so totally immobilized, one either day dreams or studies the surroundings very carefully. I chose the latter.
Suddenly I noticed that a message had been written on the dirty rear door of a large truck idling immediately in front of me: “The end of the world will be 21 April, 2011.” I smiled to myself, wondering who had written the message and how they were so certain of the precise future timing? Perhaps it was a playful teenager or a very serious adult. In any case, I was stuck in traffic and had no choice except to ponder the urgent communication.
If the author of the message were a devout Bible reader, I would hope that he or she also knew of the quote from Jesus: “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone!” (Matt 24:36).
Most folks know of the “signs” frequently cited as indications and signals of the forthcoming end of the world: planets and stars cascading out of order, earthquakes and natural disasters of all sorts, wars, famines and pestilences. The problem, of course, is that virtually every age and every part of the globe has been troubled for centuries by such recurring tragedies.
Not to dismiss the utter human devastation of such events, but there is always a famine or war going on somewhere if one looks hard enough. They can easily and quickly become ready-made every day signals of the end.
Perhaps those tragedies are not so much clear portents of the end of the world, but rather signs of a world in desperate need of healing! They, like the poor, have always been with us. From that standpoint, any age could easily be the last. We human beings are not in control and we never will be. The break down of portions of the world around us only confirms that reality. Philosophers speak of an existential ultimacy inherent in every second of our finite existence.
Therefore those traditional “signs of the end” might also be invitations to roll up our sleeves, so to speak, and to work at the healing of the world as partners of a God who desires that all people be saved at every level.
Famines point to people in need of food; wars certainly focus on human factions in desperate need of reconciliation.
There are people in our day who find both hope and terror in the imagery of the New Testament Book of Revelation (Apocalypse). If they interpret that text as an exact description documenting the actual end of the world, event by event, they do not stand within the circle of Catholic teaching. We prefer to insist that the book is not intended to be a historical preview, but rather a teaching about the destiny of creation and the judgment of God. For us it is a question of a very different type of literature than history, either reviewed from the past or projected into the future.
As I sat in my car, waiting for the traffic gridlock to loosen a bit, I decided that the stark reference to the proposed actual date for the end of the world might be a helpful summons to deal with the problems of our world. I thanked the anonymous author and said a prayer for him or her. I might even make a note in a future calendar to see what really happens on April 21, 2011!